The future of tablets is iPad-shaped

And so is the present

In the hyper-competitive world of technology, victories are usually fleeting. Asus once led the world with its Eee PC netbook, BlackBerry once held the messaging crown with BBM, and Nokia was once the name of a mobile empire. Nothing lasts forever and leaders are always toppled, but there is one exception to this rule, and that’s Apple’s iPad. The iPad grabbed the title of best tablet device when it launched in 2010, and it’s held onto it ever since. This past year has seen an exhibition of iPad clones emerging, culminating in Samsung’s perfect pair of Galaxy Tab S2 copycats: they’re the same size as Apple’s iPads, use a similar metal frame, and even have the same 4:3 aspect ratio. This isn’t competition. It’s capitulation.

A Photoshop of Samsung's Galaxy Tab S2 versus Apple's iPad Air 2. The hand is Samsung's, no one copied that.

Recall, if you will, how many unanswered questions there were around tablets when the iPad was introduced. Filling the gap between laptops and phones meant making a choice between a desktop or a mobile operating system. HP and Microsoft opted for the supposedly more capable desktop choice, Apple went for upscaling its iPhone OS. The iPad won that battle. Then there was the question of size, with some prototype tablets stretching all the way to 15 inches (acting as essentially keyboard-less laptops), but Apple set the standard at just under 10 inches. And finally, most under-appreciated of all, perhaps, is the issue of the aspect ratio: Apple chose the squarer 4:3 format while almost everyone else went for the widescreen 16:9 or 16:10, which would better match the dimensions of a movie. Well, now we can conclusively say that the iPad’s won that battle as well.

Samsung’s move to 4:3 this year is simply a reaction to what experience has taught us: humans prefer squarer tablets, whether they’re Apple-branded or not. Microsoft’s Surface 3 and Surface Pro 3 — both using a 3:2 aspect ratio that sits somewhere between the widescreen 16:9 and the iPad’s shape — both earned commendations in our reviews for their improved ergonomics. The Nexus 9 has its flaws, but it’s still one of our favorite Android tablets, and a big reason for that is the comfort of using its 4:3 screen. Even the absurdly large HP Slate Pro 12 has adopted this aspect ratio, and it’s no coincidence that it’s surprisingly easy to handle for its size.

nexus 9 png

The inherent problem of widescreen tablets is that they’re too narrowly (pun intended) focused on movie playback. Sure, watching a film without any black bars on the screen makes for a neater viewing experience, but what happens when you want to look up some details about that movie’s cast or production online? You get an uncomfortable web browser that is either too wide (in landscape mode) or too narrow (in portrait). The same is true of reading ebooks and comics or browsing through your photos: all are a better match to the iPad’s 4:3 than the widescreen options that have been on offer from Android tablets up until now. Copying Apple’s choice of screen size just makes sense.

Apple follows as often as it leads: there's no shame in it

The original iPad’s prediction of what tablets of the future, which is now our present, would look like is impressively accurate even by Apple’s high standards. As much of a benchmark device as the iPhone may be, it’s often shown Apple in the role of a late follower: it grew beyond a 4-inch screen later than its Android competitors, and it embraced the 16:9 aspect ratio that is now a universal standard later than most others. The iPad, by contrast, basically set its core premise of mobile apps and software combined with a photo-friendly screen size; everything that’s come since then has been just refinement of that original formula.

nokia n1

Every time a truly intriguing iPad competitor has emerged, it’s featured the 4:3 aspect ratio. HP’s ill-fated TouchPads failed because of immature software, not because of their shape or size, which were widely appreciated. There’s the aforementioned Nexus 9, plus the incoming Nokia N1 and Jolla Tablet, and who can forget the shameless iPad mini clone that was the Mi Pad?

Now that Samsung has given up trying to be different from the iPad — not that it was ever such a massive effort — it may seem like we’re doomed to inhabit a homogenous tablet world of just iPads and iPad derivatives. That’s the exact nightmare scenario envisioned by Motorola’s Xoom advert that aired during the Super Bowl in 2011, but if Moto wanted to prevent it from happening, it should have offered something better than the iPad. It didn’t, and no one else has either. The iPad keeps winning, at least in part, because everyone around it keeps getting lost in the chase for diversification. Maybe it’s better to let that go and focus on simply being better, and on beating the iPad on its own terms. Samsung’s new Galaxy Tabs may not be original, but they now have most of what makes Apple’s tablet appealing, including its dimensions and extras like fingerprint security.

Only question is what took Samsung this long

Apple and Samsung are now aligned on the same development path, but that need not preclude innovation from others. Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets haven’t yet fallen in the 4:3 line, and it's possible that they never will, while Microsoft’s Surface devices continue evolving an intriguing hybrid category where the keyboard and stylus are still held up as important inputs to a fully featured tablet experience. Holdouts of this kind will keep consumer choice in tablets varied for the foreseeable future, though it will surely be narrower — mostly because consumers have already made the choice, again and again, for the squarer, friendlier shape of the iPad.

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