Taking Tablets to Barcelona

One of the things that caught my eye at this year’s Mobile World Congress was not the number of tablets on display but how many were being used by attendees. I saw a lot of people carrying a tablet instead of a laptop or notepad, from the moment we passed security checks at Heathrow airport, to attending press briefings and presentations in the Fira.

Obviously it’s worth mentioning that almost every tablet I saw being used was an Apple iPad, with the occasional Samsung Galaxy Tab. I think that’s a fair reflection of the state of the nascent market. Apple’s seminal device may have been joined by Android 3.0-powered devices like Motorola’s Xoom, LG’s Optimus Pad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, as well as HP’s webOS-based TouchPad and RIM’s PlayBook, but the iPad and the iPad 2 have set the benchmark against which rivals will be judged.

And we should remember that Mobile World Congress attendees are a select group; they certainly don’t represent the average consumer. A rash of tablets at an industry event isn’t the same thing as mass-market acceptance.

I’m still undecided on what the tablet really means to retailers and, more importantly, potential buyers. Where do you draw the line between a small tablet and a large mobile phone? The Dell Streak 7 and soon to be released Acer Iconia Smart are two examples that blur the boundaries. At the other end of the scale, my experience at Mobile World Congress shows that tablets can be used as substitutes for laptops, but I wonder how many will return next year. For many buyers and retailers, tablets may prove to be the new netbooks: interesting devices that fail to live up to the initial hype.