Last month, the world's top high-tech manufacturers gathered in Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. They hobnobbed. They exchanged business cards. But most important, they introduced their latest innovations to the world.
Remember, this is the venue where we got our first real glimpse of VCRs (1970), CD players (1981), and DVDs (1996).
This year there was one category that really stole the show -- tablet computers. More than 80 different tablets were put on display. And the crowd has been buzzing ever since.
In dollar terms, tablet sales could generate $34 billion in revenue by next year. And the total will rise dramatically in a short period of time. That spells plenty of opportunities for investors who know where to look.
Today's tablets are years ahead of previous generations -- they can play MP3s, read e-books, stream movies, surf the Internet or video chat with friends. The combination of better applications and advanced wireless technologies has laid the foundation for the "Age of the Tablet."
Citigroup analysts believe sales could reach 35 million units this year -- and that could be a lowball estimate -- eMarketer is banking on 70 million, while ISI Group is expecting volume to reach 90 million by 2012. Research firm Gartner is forecasting that global tablet sales could skyrocket to 208 million by 2014.
That's a 10-fold increase from today's levels.
There's no arguing the direction of the market -- it's just a matter of how high and how fast. I believe tablets will soon take a large bite out of handheld gaming consoles, e-readers and other single-function devices and overtake laptops within the next three years.
Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) gives us a bullish clue that the transfer of power is already taking place. The company recently ordered 65 million iPad display screens from vendors. You don't place an order like that without being confident that business is about to ramp up considerably.
The handful of companies at the front of the $34-billion market
In many regards, it's still Apple against the rest of the world. But this one-sided contest is about to become anyone's ballgame.
Samsung's new Galaxy Tab is widely considered the first real threat to the iPad. The flashy device features front and rear-facing cameras, full 1080 HD video and a host of other bells and whistles. Samsung shipped more than 1 million units in its first two months.
All four major wireless providers carry the device, which dramatically widens the distribution channel. And Verizon (NYSE: VZ), AT&T (NYSE: T), Sprint (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile are all happy to help push sales -- considering the accompanying data plans typically bring in $30 a month or more.
Not far behind, well-respected tech outfits like Dell (Nasdaq: DELL), LG, Vizio, Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO), Sony (NYSE: SNE) and Toshiba will all soon enter the field, along with scores of lesser-known manufacturers competing at different price points. They will all be jockeying for position in a booming market.
It's pretty easy to see that competition in the field will be brutal across all aspects of the tablet market. But there is one place where I think a single company is going to end up with the bulk of the business -- the special glass that goes into every tablet made.
Action to Take--> One company has emerged as the world's dominant supplier, Corning (NYSE: GLW). The firm's future lies in Gorilla Glass, which is engineered at the molecular level to be thin, strong and scratch-resistant.
Without getting too technical, Gorilla Glass is sensitive to the touch, yet nearly impervious to damage. Those attributes make the glass an ideal cover for smartphones, tablets, laptops, LCD monitors and the newest 3-D televisions.
Thanks to Gorilla Glass, Corning's Specialty Materials segment posted impressive 77% revenue growth last quarter. And with the market growing by leaps and bounds, I'm expecting this one segment to produce more than $1 billion in sales next year, quadruple what it made last year. That's a nice slice of a still-young tablet market.