Is The Tablet A Passing Fad?

Yesterday, Thorsten Heins from RIM proclaimed that the tablet market will diminish within 5 years. His view is that the smartphone will be the focus of our attention, and that we will attach it to “big screens” when we need more real estate. The idea of dockable phones isn’t new. But, so far, it really hasn’t caught on with smartphone buyers. Given the current growth rates, and overwhelming mass of predictions about tablets replacing PC’s, it would seem to be easy to dismiss Heins’ predictions as the words of a madman trying to shake things up. But there is a cautionary tale that should at least give us pause before proclaiming the tablet as the future of personal computing.

Start With A Caveat

I’ll start with a caveat and disclaimer: I don’t agree with Mr. Heins and his prediction, but I’m also not convinced that the tablet will effectively replace the conventional PC everywhere. Tablets will likely be the central piece of the personal and mobile computing ecosystem, and I fully expect tablets to supplant a big piece of PC sales. Even if viable docking solutions become available, I see tablets in some form (even if they are manifested as a bigger screen with a slot to dock your phone to give you more screen space) existing for a long time, but I also see other current computing forms (smartphone, notebook, desktop) continuing for a long while as well.

I also won’t dismiss this as a result of RIM being a “sore loser” in the tablet space. It would be easy to characterize the comments, and his prediction, as sour grapes because the Playbook was a sales disaster. I suspect that his comments, and RIM’s potential future plans, may contain an element of that. But I don’t believe that his prediction is fuelled primarily by RIM’s utter failure to succeed in tablets.

What Might Give Us Pause

The only caution that bears some thought when considering that “tablets will be here forever” is to consider the fate of the netbook. For a while, it appeared that the netbook might become the dominant form of personal computing, given that it offered PC-style functionality, but in a highly portable package. The netbook died for a couple of reasons, but both of those reasons are because it was disrupted by something better. On paper, a netbook appeared to be very attractive. It was small, making it easy to carry. Most offered respectable battery life. Being a “real PC”, it ran conventional PC software like Word and Excel. And netbooks were cheap, even when compared to far bulkier entry-level notebook computers. There was a lot to potentially like about netbooks.

But it certainly wasn’t all roses and sunshine. Most netbooks suffered from performance problems, making their use for much beyond web surfing, e-mail and basic tasks like typing text a stretch. Gaming on most netbooks was a non-starter. The small screen made it less than useful for anyone doing serious graphics work. The cramped keyboards made typing at speed rather difficult. Local storage was often fairly limited. Netbooks were a compromise, but for the type of tasks they seemed to be built for, they were “good enough” at the time.

At their peak, netbooks represented nearly 10% of all new PC sales, and had cut into the entry-level (typically 14″ units selling for $400-500 each) notebook sales. Netbooks had the potential to climb as high as 15-20% of overall PC sales, largely gobbling up the entry-level consumer and education market. They also made in-roads in the business “road warrior” segment who value portability over power.

The machines weren’t perfect. They were full of technological and physical compromises. But they had a purpose and a space, and at one point, every mainstream PC manufacturer offered a netbook of some kind. The first winds of change for the netbook appeared in January 2008, when a different form of ultraportable laptop became real: the MacBook Air.

Alternative Visions of Portable Computing

Apple has a habit of trying to create a different vision for different types of computing. The first iPod was expensive, didn’t come with a ton of features, but offered something that was simple to use and it was part of a bigger ecosystem of content. The iPhone was a smartphone aimed at consumers, not the traditional smartphone market, which was the enterprise. Even the first Macintosh was an attempt to be different from the emerging “normal” PC. Apple’s physical designs also tend to take their own paths. When everyone was building beige boxes in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Apple switched to silver. When everyone went black, Apple went white. In the late 1990’s, Apple switched to vibrant colours for some models, and sleek aluminum cases for others. They were one of the first to use aluminum for their notebooks, and focused on thinner and more elegant designs, when everyone else seemed to be trying to build a black brick that looked like a Thinkpad.

Apple’s two biggest contributions to mobile computing were the iPad and the MacBook Air. Intel had been talking about “ultrabooks” for a few years prior to the MacBook Air, but no manufacturer seemed to bite. All people had were pictures and videos of design studies for ultra-thin notebooks. When Steve Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of that manila envelope, people’s view changed. Here was a notebook computer that was extremely thin, light and portable that you could actually buy. Sure, it was a Mac, but it was very real. The follow-on generations kept improving on the original design. Now, everyone else has some kind of ultrabook, and a lot of them look a lot like a MacBook Air at a first glance.

The iPad was Apple’s second big contribution. Unlike the MacBook Air, which was simply a different take on a existing thing, the iPad created a new form of computing out of whole cloth. Sure, there were slate-style tablets running Windows XP Tablet Edition, but those were big, clunky, expensive devices with limited battery, limited processing power and limited utility for the average user. It was like saying that a railroad handcar was a sportscar because they both have wheels. The iPad and the Windows tablets weren’t in the same league. The Windows tablet was a PC operating system with the “tablet” bit sort-of duct-taped on to the side. The iPad, however, was a tablet built from the ground up to be a tablet. All the apps were touch-enabled out of the gate. The tablet part wasn’t an afterthought. It was the heart of the product. One notable result of the iPad’s introduction was the death of the netbook.

The End Of The Netbook

The netbook came and went in a matter of years. The first units appeared in 2007, by 2010 they appeared to be cemented firmly in the pantheon of personal computing, and by 2012 they were gone. In the span of 5 years, they went from birth, to standout success, to death. At one point viewed as a near-certain form of personal computing, it barely lasted half a decade.

In North America, no one offers a netbook anymore. HP and Dell discontinued theirs over a year ago. Asus, who created the first netbook with the Eee PC, produced their last model at the end of 2012. Where netbooks once consumed about 1/3rd of the notebook showroom area in places like Best Buy, they are one of the few forms of computing that has completely disappeared from the landscape.

The disruption was partly because of ultrabooks, but largely because of tablets, dominated by the iPad. It wasn’t certain, back in 2010, when the iPad first appeared. There were plenty of predictions that it would flop, and a lot of “what would you do it with it?” questions asked in the early days. Unlike  MP3 players, smartphones, netbooks and ultrabooks, the iPad wasn’t something that slotted neatly into an existing space. An MP3 player was a logical replacement for a portable CD player. Smartphones were an amalgamation of the PDA and mobile phone. Ultrabooks and netbooks were highly portable notebooks.

The iPad was different. Many initially described it as a really big iPod Touch. That aspect at least made it somewhat familiar. The iPad wasn’t a completely foreign idea conceptually. But understanding something as an idea is one thing. Understanding it as something tangible was going to be something else. Sure it was sort of like a big iPod Touch, but who really wanted that?

Apparently a lot of people wanted it. The iPad, and the Android tablets that followed, gave people a form of personal computing that was nearly as portable as a smartphone, but without the interactive compromises of a small screen. The bigger device allowed for bigger batteries, more powerful processors and the most obvious feature, a bigger screen that people could work with. While still a compromise when compared to notebook and desktop PCs, it required fewer compromises (and even sacrifices) when compared to a smartphone. The iPad is 3 years old, and has gone from zero to representing 10-15% of the personal computing market, The growth trajectory for tablets overall is far faster than the netbook ever was. The tablet has eliminated the netbook, and is eating into the low-end notebook space. Why? It’s portable, it’s powerful and the software is typically easier to use. I’ve got family members who wouldn’t touch a PC, but the first time they picked up a tablet, they wouldn’t put it down. You used it in a more “conventional” way, holding it like you would a newspaper or a book. It was easy to try stuff out, and you could hold the thing for long periods of time.

But Is The Tablet Doomed?

As with anything in this world, every product is a potential target for catastrophic disruption. Sailing ships couldn’t compete with steam-powered ships. Horses couldn’t compete with cars and trucks on the road, and tractors, threshers and other implements in the field. The Compact Disc replaced vinyl records, and the CD is being replaced by digital downloads. VHS tape was eliminated by a combination of the DVD and Personal Video Recorders. The DVD itself is being disrupted by digital downloads. MP3 players and PDAs had their day, both being subsumed into smartphones and tablets.

Could the tablet be disrupted? Certainly it could. Whatever replaces it won’t look and feel like a tablet, in the same way that the tablet didn’t look and fell anything like a netbook. But that event is an indeterminate distance into the future. Something could come out tomorrow that displaces the tablet. Something may not arrive for another decade. While the general sentiment that the tablet could be replaced by something else is possible, Thorsten Heins’ prediction about diminishing “in 5 years” is highly suspect. Certainly, the tablet in 5 years could be a different beast, where the actual “smarts” are provided by a smartphone or similar device that you dock with the unit. But it is still a tablet, and thus there would still be a tablet market.

His assertion about connecting to a “big screen in your workspace” sounds suspiciously like the dock-oriented “laptops” that augment smartphones that are failing to sell in any serious numbers today. Even the dockable notebooks from the 1990s’ (such as the Toshiba Libretto and PowerBook Duo) were more oddities than substantial PC trend. It was an interesting idea, but it never seemed to catch on. Intellectually, the idea should have been a hit, and elements of the concept have survived with some notebooks offering a simple dock to connect to your laptop (such as the docs the ThinkPads typically offer). But those docking solutions seem few and far between, which is odd in some ways. I like my MacBook, but I do miss the simple “click it in and you’re connected” dock I had with ThinkPads at a past venture.

Tablets Are Probably Secure For Now

Barring some radical new technology, the future for the tablet seems pretty secure. It will likely continue to consume more and more of the entry-level computing space, and they will continue to grow in terms of processing power and storage. Tablets have made large in-roads in the enterprise, and are likely to continue that trend. For some categories of users, a tablet can make more sense than a full-on notebook or desktop PC. But the tablet market “diminishing in 5 years”? I just don’t see that as a probable outcome.

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