What the summer portends in new tablets

Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon expected to launch new models in coming months

Summer 2012 promises to be the season of tablet experimentation on a grander scale than ever.

Just about every tablet maker, including Apple, is rumored (or expected) to announce (or launch) a new tablet version within roughly the next four months. The devices are likely to be smaller in the case of Apple and bigger in the case of Amazon.

Google is expected to announce an inexpensive tablet with hardware maker Asus at the Google I/O conference in late June, while a Windows RT tablet from Microsoft and new-found partner Barnes & Noble could be on tap for late summer or fall.

With so many different reports of new tablets surfacing, it's time to take stock of what's coming.

To begin, here are some general themes seen by analysts for what's coming in the next quarter:

  • Apple will grow stronger, even with new competitors like Microsoft. That's not a hard conclusion to reach, since Apple took 59% of the global tablet market in 2011, according to IDC, which expects Apple to dominate the tablet market through 2016, at least.
  • Google will attempt to regain control of a pure Android tablet. Having seen Amazon, with its Kindle Fire, and Barnes & Noble, with the Nook tablet, selling forked versions of Android that lessen dependency on Google services and apps, the company will want to step up its control over the mobile operating system it created.
  • More vendors will lower the prices of their tablets to compete with the $200 Kindle Fire and the Nook.
  • More LTE-based tablets will emerge, offering faster wireless connections, even though customers currently prefer Wi-Fi-only models. A move to LTE will become even more likely once wireless carriers announce shared data plans, possibly this summer, that enable users to share smartphone and tablet data, possibly even across a workgroup or a family.
  • Tablet sizes will vary widely, with touchscreens ranging from 7 to 13 inches diagonally, although a 10-in. form factor will be dominant. The iPad has a 9.7 in. screen.

Here's what's on tap for this summer, in order of likely timing:

This month: Barnes & Noble and Amazon have already kicked off new TV ad campaigns for their current Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire models -- both of which have 7-in. touchscreens. They're hoping to appeal to people shopping for graduation gifts and to clear out inventory to make room for forthcoming models, analysts said.

May or June: Amazon is expected to launch a tablet that's larger than its 7-in. Kindle Fire, but IDC analyst Tom Mainelli said it's not clear whether it will be a 9.7-in. or 8.9-in. device.

Late June: In an announcement that will probably take place at Google I/O, Google is expected to unveil a $200 tablet called Google Play that will run Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) using a Tegra 3 quad-core processor.

The Google Play would be built by Asus, possibly co-branded with Google or purely branded as a Google product. Its biggest distinction would be that it runs plain vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich, not the versions of Android seen in the Nook and the Kindle Fire.

August: Dominant tablet maker Apple is expected to launch a smaller version of the iPad, according to reports in Digitimes and elsewhere on Wednesday. These reports say the smaller iPad will be a 7-in. model, although Mainelli said it could be 7.8 in., just shy of two inches smaller than the current iPad.

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