Have Tablets Found Their Place?

Apple’s latest results showed impressive sales for iPhone and Macs, but the iPad was down again compared to last year (down 22%). Part of that is that the cheaper tablets are gaining in market share, which is to be expected. But tablet sales, outside of the absolute cheapest (and least functional) models are also slowing. Has the tablet established what it is going to do?

Initial Reactions

When the iPad first appeared, it looked like a solution in search of a problem. It was widely panned by analysts and reviewers, mainly derided as a “big iPod Touch”. It was too big. It had a goofy name. It wasn’t clear what you would “do” with it.

But people bought them in heaps and piles. The iPad’s growth in the first couple of years was phenomenal, and when Android tablets got added to the mix, tablet computing appeared to be the future of low-end personal computing. Some (including me) felt it could supplant the $500 notebook as the personal computer of choice for most people. Some felt it might devastate the notebook market as a whole. The tablet did effectively kill off the netbook, which was too much of a compromise on too many things. The tablet didn’t pretend to be more than it was. And it could be argued that the tablet did have an impact on the entry-level notebook.

But starting 18 months ago, tablet sales started to cool. Tablet manufacturers were starting to discover the nature of the tablet buyer. They weren’t replacing them as fast as they did a smartphone. The replacement cycle started to look more like the PC cycle, which appears to be 2-3 years for enterprise computers and 4-6 years for consumer PCs. Corporate machines appear to be mainly driven by lease lifecycle (at least in North America), and personal machines appear to be viewed like other household appliances, something you hang on to until it finally doesn’t work as you want or expect it to. Tablets may have fallen into that same mindset.

Their Role Discovered?

Which likely means that everyone who wants a tablet has one. And not just innovators and early adopters (to use Crossing The Chasm speak), but those in the early and late majority. Whatever people are going to do with tablets, they are pretty much doing now. That isn’t to say that new roles for a tablet won’t be discovered. For now, though, things have settled down a bit.

The issue is that the tablet, like the netbook, is its own set of compromises. Every technology implementation is. A desktop PC offers massive screen space, power and storage, but at the expense of portability. High-power notebooks offer desktop-like computing, but not the expandability or storage, and it comes with a premium price. Mid-range and entry-level notebooks give up on power and storage for either price or portability (or both).

A tablet lacks a physical keyboard, a default high-precision pointing device, presents a modest-sized screen, and provides equally modest computing power and storage. What it does provide is better computing and screen options when compared to most smartphones, and more portability and better battery life than most notebooks. The apps tend to be simpler, and some tasks are better suited to a tablet over a notebook or desktop PC.

Consuming vs. Producing

You can certainly be productive on a tablet, to a degree. Obviously, you can add external keyboards, and in some cases a mouse or stylus. But if you end up using the keyboard and external pointing device on a regular-enough basis, then you might as well have just bought an ultra thin notebook like a MacBook Air. The strength of a tablet is the ability to be useful with out the usual mechanical input devices. It can be “more natural” in some situations when compared to a notebook.

The tablet appears to be best suited for “consuming” things more than producing. Reading and reviewing documents or on-line content, viewing video and some kinds of games are a natural fit for a tablet. It’s book-like form-factor and portable-first nature lends itself well to these types of tasks. But high-volume input (like typing) and some high-precision work (like complex graphics work) are generally easier with real keyboards and real mice or drawing tablets (Bamboo-type tablets, not computing tablets).

This isn’t to say you can produce things on a tablet at all. You can. There are plenty of artists using tablets to create some incredible visual work. Composers and musicians can use tablets to create, as can anyone capturing video or still pictures. Having an electronic sketch book/composition sheet/photo editor that you easily take with you can be a powerful tool. But if you create things with words or numbers, or with complex graphics or video, then the tablet starts to fall short without help.

Will It Change?

This isn’t to say that the tablet is “doomed” to a particular role. There were many even a decade ago that were skeptical about a notebook/portable computer being able to replace a desktop. Now, except for some uses, a high-end notebook is as useful as any desktop computer for many, many tasks. For most people, a notebook does everything a desktop will do for them.

Someone or some company may come along and find different ways to make a tablet more productive in tasks that are currently better suited to something with physical keyboards and mice or other pointing devices. By the way, the “hybrid” isn’t the answer to that: they aren’t great tablets and they aren’t great notebooks. It’s compromises for two devices already making compromises. What I’m talking about is a different way of interacting with a tablet beyond poking it with fingers. What will it be? Who knows. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean someone won’t think of something.

In the mean time, it appears that the tablet has found whatever role or roles it has in the pantheon of personal computing. Until there is a change or shift, it will remain there for a while yet.