With CES 2012 a month away, it’s a good time to look ahead at what’s next for consumer technology product strategy. All eyes have been on tablets: Apple sold 40 million iPads in just 18 months, with 11 million sold in this past quarter alone. With the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet finding their own successful markets, it’s easy to see why tablets attract so much attention and excitement. But computing evolution doesn’t end here—tablets, while still growing rapidly, are not the final form factor. We’ve identified these five form factors as the best candidates for what comes next, which we describe in more detail in a new report for clients:

  • Wearables. Wearable devices are devices worn on or near the body that sense and relay information. The Lark sleep tracker and BodyMedia wristband both sync with iOS devices and target health and fitness scenarios. WIMM Labs' wristwatch runs on Android software, and targets multiple scenarios including news, social networking, health, and personal finance.
  • Embedded devices. We define embedded devices as physical objects that incorporate computing processors and sensors, excluding those worn on the body, which we classify as wearables. Like wearables, embedded devices are diverse in form, ranging from devices such as Livescribe smartpens that fit into your pocket to LG Thinq refrigerators that sit in your kitchen.
  • Surfaces. Surfaces are large interactive displays, which may incorporate multitouch, voice and gesture control, facial recognition, NFC, QR codes, or other input/output mechanisms. Tesco Homeplus, the No. 2 grocery retailer in South Korea, built “virtual malls” in subway stations where commuters order groceries for home delivery with their cell phones by taking pictures of QR codes on a photorealistic surface.
  • Flexible displays. Flexible displays are computing screens that can be rolled, folded, or flexed. Flexible devices can take the form of personal devices, such as an eReader, or larger surface displays, such as furniture or wallpaper. HP has been developing printable Mylar displays that it imagines could be used for candy wrappers, armband computers for the military, or living room wallpaper, but the displays are still several years from commercialization.
  • Mini-projectors. Mini-projectors are small devices that project a larger image onto another surface or, in the case of holographic projection, into 3D space. Apple has already filed a patent to embed interactive projectors into its iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Embedded mini-projectors would appeal primarily to information workers, but there could be broader consumer uses as well — impromptu photo slide shows or YouTube viewing in a group, for example.

As product strategists think about what’s coming in 2012 and beyond, know that none of these devices will operate in isolation. The most successful products will work with other products—for example, wearables that talk to smartphones and TVs; surfaces that are activated by the presence of your smartphone. We’re living in a multidevice, multiconnection world, and the best experiences will be those that work across devices and platforms. In that sense, the next phase of the Post-PC Era doesn’t look so different from today.