Tablets 2015: Who Will Stand With the iPad?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Though Apple's ( AAPL) iPad is the only real player in today's tablet device market -- the iPad is a luxury item folks are buying for prestige, as one analyst puts it -- Forrester Research predicts that some 60 million Americans will own one of the slim touchscreen computers by 2015.

That's a big hike from the 8 million to 10 million tablets analysts expect to ship over the next year, and you can bet that Apple products won't be the only ones included in the tally.
It's going to take a lot to beat Apple's iPad, but plenty of tablet makers are trying.

Tablet makers -- which comprise many of tech's biggest names -- face lots of challenges as they aim to gain viability in a market that's both hazily defined by an in-between product and dominated by the iPad, which has set the standard in terms of aesthetic and function.

"Apple is way ahead of everybody, but other guys will play catch up, like H-P and Dell," James Brehm, senior consultant at Frost & Sullivan, told TheStreet. "H-P and Dell have the production capacity in place to be able to do that -- they have the strength and breadth, the market cap, and the war chest of money to catch up."

So, five years from now, who will be the big tablet winners?

Here's a look at the tech firms readying devices intended to grab market share in the nascent sector:
  • Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), whose forthcoming tablet running Palm's WebOS is expected in October.
  • Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackPad BlackBerry tablet, reportedly slated for a November launch.
  • Dell's (DELL) Streak, which was originally slated for late July, but after a sluggish U.K. launch is "coming soon" to the U.S., according to the company.
  • Nokia's (NOK) tablet, which is expected to launch this fall.
  • Cisco's (CSCO) Cius business tablet, which is likely to ship in the first quarter of 2011.
  • Despite these ambitious announcements, many of these companies have postponed initial launch dates, and most have yet to show any concrete plans or numbers. But some have offered a peek into how they plan to differentiate their products.

    The shape of tablets to come

    "The tablet might be the portal that connects to the outside network operator and connects all the connected home devices together," said Jeff Orr, an analyst at ABI Research. "It could be connected to heating, air conditioning, lights and security."

    This might sound far-fetched, but companies from IBM ( IBM) to Cisco are all touting the concept of the connected home in their tablet strategies.

    Earlier this year T-Mobile UK announced plans to offer a tablet from Seattle-based device maker ICD, which it is pushing as a "portable family hub." The 15-inch touchscreen device, which is designed to sit in a kitchen, provides access to an online household calendar, Web browsing, on-demand TV and also contains an FM radio.

    Cisco's upcoming Cius tablet will make its mark outside of the home, being a tablet geared specifically toward business users. The device will combine high-definition voice and video with telepresence, a form of high-end videoconferencing, when it makes its debut early next year.

    Then there's even nichier markets like health care, where Panasonic ( PC) is already offering tablet/notebook combos. Panasonic's high-end 'business-rugged' Toughbooks, for example, are priced above $2,500, although these are much more physically robust than the iPad.

    "I think that tablets are going to morph into the notebook," said Avi Cohen, an analyst at Avian Securities, offering consumers the ability to physically twist the notebook screen, converting the device into a touchscreen tablet. " This will be something of a tabletlike form factor with the capability of a full PC."

    Cohen predicts that lower-cost tablet/PC combos will be a feature of the tech landscape by 2015. "What I think we will be talking about by that time will be 'many more PCs with touchscreens,' " he said, adding that this will offer consumers and businesses the flexibility of a PC keyboard and a touchscreen tablet.

    As tablet makers find a way to gain popularity in niches, forging good partnerships with telcos will be crucial, as network providers will likely be the market's other big winners.

    Telcos' big opportunity

    AT&T ( T) saw its wireless prepaid net adds increase by 300,000 during its recent second-quarter results thanks to the launch of Apple's iPad 3G. AT&T, which offers two 3G data plans for iPad users, also increased its average monthly revenue per user during the second quarter.

    "It's huge, it's tremendous," said Frost & Sullivan's Brehm. "Network providers are going to provide differentiated services, and we're entering an era where everything that can be connected to the Internet will be connected to the Internet."

    There's downside, however, for the companies that don't naturally find an extension into the tablet market. Phone handset makers such as Nokia are attempting to get into the tablet market, although ABI analyst Orr warns that this could be easier said than done.

    "It may be an unnatural jump for some companies to get into it," he said. "Factors include distribution of the devices -- traditionally a handset maker is selling most of their devices through a network operator."

    Current tablet buying trends suggest that consumers are more likely to buy the product direct from manufacturers. "Given the price point, tablets will appeal first to consumers that can touch and play with them," he said.

    It is still uncertain, however, which company will be the ultimate tablet winner, although one person who posted to TheStreet's message boards expects Apple to account for 50 million of the projected 60 million tablets sold in 2015.

    That might be a little ambitious, even for Apple. The truth is that tablets represent a huge, wide-open market. "It's an interesting opportunity," said ABI's Orr. "Today, we really have one strong tablet brand and a lot of promises from other companies ."

    -- Reported by James Rogers in New York

    Follow James Rogers on Twitter.