Tablet computers’ expanding market share should be considered as a new era in computing, according to a new report by Juniper Research. The analysts forecast that 55.2 million units will be shipped by the end of 2011, almost quintupling to 253 million in five years.

Besides the sheer volume of tablets getting into users’ hands, Juniper predicts a significant shift from the currently predominant Wi-Fi network access to an environment in which over half of annual tablet shipments will have cellular connections by 2016.

This will hold true both in developed and emerging markets, since territories with 4G networks will deliver richer content and experiences, while in other territories the lack of fixed-line infrastructure will make cellular connections almost a necessity.

Daniel Ashdown, author of the Juniper report Tablet & eReader Evolution: Strategies & Opportunities 2011-2016, said that operators’ consumer strategies will affect this trend. “Multi-device plans (for a smartphone and a tablet) will overcome the problem of consumers not wanting to pay another subscription,” he wrote.

While smartphones and tablets are the fastest growing area for consumer technology, Juniper forecasts strong adoption for enterprises users as well. Microsoft’s announcement that Windows 8 OS will be compatible with tablets (with the tablet interface to be known as Windows Metro) means that Microsoft’s Office suite will too, adding to the appeal for businesses.

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Photo shows Sony Tablet P, courtesy of Sony Electronics