Trouble in Tablet Land?

The Boy Genius Report is linking to a DigiTimes report that some handset vendors and ODMs are backing away from the supposedly burgeoning Tablet market and seeking some shelter by focusing on the 4 and 5 inch handset market. Honeycomb 3.1 is starting to roll out and some reviewers are finding news ways to say that is still very much a work in progress and not quite there yet. So, is there trouble brewing in “The Year of the Tablet 2.0?”

If you read the tea leaves, there are certainly some concerns in the market. As the “Year of the Tablet 2.0″ reaches its midpoint there are still more promised Tablets to come, but those that have debuted have suffered from various issues and missteps. Those issues include:

  • Rushing hardware to market when it isn’t ready, essentially forcing BETA devices and software onto a public that was apparently not so eager in the first place. Since when did it become acceptable to bring a device to market with as many “coming soon” bullet points as features?
  • Google’s problems with Android fragmentation and having a Tablet ready OS when the device manufacturers felt they needed to launch. Honeycomb 3.1 was supposed to fix this but from what I’m reading it has only done a partial job of doing that. When you start seeing comments like “I’m looking forward to what Ice Cream (the next latest and greatest Android delicacy) brings” then you know there are problems.
  • Supply chain issues. Whether brought about by the horrendous storms in Japan or Apple trying to corner the market, or just problems getting the materials, it doesn’t seem like the supply line is ready to handle what the manufacturers need.
  • In RIM’s case, just poor, poor executive leadership.
  • And, most importantly, having a sense of what the market wants for these devices.

We’ve seen several back pedals and retrenchments in Year of the Tablet 2.0 but not near as many as we saw in 1.0 If the speculation from Digitimes has any truth to it, I think we’re seeing that the promise of Tablets everywhere might be a bit tarnished. In fact we may be seeing a bit of a retreat instead of a retrenchment.

Keep in mind that this is still a nascent market and while there is still plenty of room for growth and success there is also plenty of room for failure. But with Apple in a runaway lead, the margin for failure is extremely thin. The story of the last two years is that first impressions count when it comes to releasing a mobile device, especially a Tablet. Unfortunately they seem to matter more than the first weekend of a summer blockbuster’s box office take.

Google hasn’t helped matters at all here with its “we’ll take all-comers” approach to Android. If there’s a coherent strategy I can’t find one, beyond generating volume without any seeming consistency or control over the experience.  But when the focus is on selling ads instead of creating a coherent experience I can see where those problems can surface. Yeah, I know that “control” word drives some Android folks crazy as they love the supposed “openness” of Android. But from where I sit, Google’s slipshod approach has succeeded in making Apple’s clamped down approach seem almost refreshing and dare I say, freeing.

At the moment, Samsung seems to be the only competitor with a fighting chance to make a real dent in the market, but even they have taken some hits with the roll out of the new Galaxy Tab 10.1. Samsung proved both that it was bold and able to move quickly when it changed up the width and heft of the 10.1 quickly so it could say it had the thinnest and lightest Tablet on the market. From what I’m reading that marketing slogan isn’t cutting much dice with the reviewers since the differences are razor thin. It doesn’t help your case when quite a few reviewers are saying that your latest flagship Tablet is a good effort though not complete, or worse yet, can’t be recommended.

We’re about to hear from HP and see what the TouchPad brings to the table. There were always high expectations for that device. I think the missteps by others have only raised the stakes, so it will be interesting to see how the TouchPad rolls out and meets those expectations or not. (UPDATE: Here’s hoping this rumor that the TouchPad will not include document editing at launch is not true.)

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For most of the short-lived history of this current age of Tablets we’ve heard how Apps are the key. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Software or applications or Apps have always been the key to what makes any computer more than just a cool gadget or a paperweight. The short-sighted focus on numbers. The long view isn’t about the number of Apps or the kind of Apps, or the types of Apps, its about how the Apps that do exist define what the device is for a particular user. That usually boils down to marketing, and quite frankly, Apple seems to be the only Tablet player who gets that. Take a look at Apple’s latest iPad ad.

Sure, it’s full of hyperbole, but notice that it doesn’t mention the product name until the final graphic. The ad is selling an experience. Given the similarity in hardware among some of the later Tablets, Apple has got to be pretty damn confident to be selling the experience more than the device. Is Apple just smarter than the others? Or is Apple counting on the ineptitude of everyone else? How many ads have you seen that use the inclusion of FLASH as a selling point? Do you really think that the mass market cares what the chipset is? The dollars trumpeting those as selling points are wasted in my view. But back to the point. Apple realizes that a Tablet is going to be a very personal experience and that’s the current approach its taking in its marketing. And that approach extends from the advertising to the retail store experience. The others seem to be just trying to sell Tablets.

I think this is key to Apple’s success so far, and I think the lack of recognizing this crucial point has been detrimental to the other players. Keep in mind that before the original iPad was released, the prevailing wisdom was that Apple had to not only produce a good device but make a case for why it was needed. To be honest, I’m not sure the latter has been done successfully on all levels. Apple is also capable of stumbling here as well. While there are rumors about higher res displays and other features for a Tablet 3.0 (which we won’t see until next year regardless of the speculation) there’s really not much beyond upgrading a camera and tinkering around the margins that Apple or anyone can do to the hardware. And that takes us to the experience. Given that Apple seems to revamping its entire strategy to focus on what it calls the post-PC age, says that it is at least looking beyond how many units it can sell next quarter and trying to meld Tablets into an experience that is independent of the device.

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So, is their trouble in Tablet land? I think the answer is yes. But I think the answer goes far beyond just Tablets. I think the entire industry is struggling to find a strategy or strategies that work. The disruption that began with Netbooks and moved to Tablets has been tremendous and has had some far reaching consequences so far. Even with Apple’s lead, I still think we’re in a big messy, confusing, and tumultuous time where a number of forces are trying to sort out what tomorrow really means.

Comments

  1. Mike Cane says

    >>>making Apple’s clamped down approach seem almost refreshing and dare I say, freeing.

    That’s summed up in just three words: It Just Works.

  2. Willem Evenhuis says

    The cause of this holding back attitude is anyone’s guess. The world is more complex than a group of people worried about the tablet market. The bottom line is what consumers finally want. I still think companies read the end-user wrongly and focus too much on the success of the current online media hype. There is nothing really wrong about that, but focussing tablet functionality on only this part is a narrow mindedness in disfavor of the tablet. I think more functionality, expecially inking and ink to text recogniton should still be considered, someting I hope microsoft will still pursue in windows 8.

  3. Anonymous says

    “Is Apple just smarter than the others?”
    yup.

    and you can see where Apple is going with iOS 5/iCloud. even easier to use. automatic seamless and effortless integration with your other Apple products. not to mention turning Apple TV – and thereby your HDTV – into a complete extension of your iPad by just taping on one control icon (ok, takes two taps).

    while instead the other guys focus on more, more, more bells and whistles that have little or nothing to do with each other.

    tablets are the anti-computer computer. “easy” wins. 

  4. Tim says

    Apple fans will buy anything that Steve Jobs puts in front of them, but for most people tablets are useless. For most people, laptop and phone work well together

  5. Anonymous says

    I don’t know Warner, I think you are making mountains of mole hills here.
    Apple generation 1 ipad was a very good product and built on the iphone universe they already had installed.
    But to say android approach won’t work kind of flys in the face of the huge and growing market share it has provided in the smart-phone space.
    I don’t recall anyone saying 3.1 was going to solve all problems everywhere.
    The thing about android is that it is pretty fast moving so – we’ll see in sixth months and then again six months after that.
    I guess your point is that at some point the buyers will stop buying waiting for it to be ‘ready’ and undercutting support for the ecosystem – killing it before it ever is ready.
    But that is an extremist viewpoint I think.
    It is not like nobody is buying anroid tablets and all get horrible reviews.
    Samsung seems to have gotten some love for its recent ipad like think/no-ports ideas – though I’m not a fan of either.
    Asus has certainly gotten some kudos as well.
    To say that waiting to see what is next is a sign of problems seems silly.
    If it is true then apple is having major problems as all every fan-boy talks about his what is coming next and when.  Then as soon as it gets here they start again talking about what next and when.
    It’s true android shipped with some things not finished.  But then it seems a little odd to hodl it against them for delaying full use of some features which ipad does not have at all.
    Like everythign it is different strokes for different folks and apple has, in its ipad, perhaps the best of all its products as actually offering something unique beyond just the marketing.
    But if android is a never-happened in tablets in a year then I’ll eat my hat.

    • Anonymous says

      alsosavagemike,

      I don’t think you’ll be eating any hats within the next year. You nailed one of my points exactly. I read somewhere today (and I’m kicking myself that I can’t find the link at the moment) that a Staple employee is saying that they are selling Tablets but are seeing far too many returns. If I remember the article correctly his view was that customers couldn’t figure out what to do with them. (I’ll try to find that article.)

      • Anonymous says

        I can see that.
        Only time will tell – but I think the hardware pushing so hot/heavy now will give all these things enough power and life that they will continue to sell even without a killer app.
        Everyone thought the same of the netbook though, too.
        That has certainly petered out.
        Though I question if it would have petered out as much as it has without the tablet coming along.
        In the end competition will come for apple because it is just the way of the world.
        And even in these early stages of the game, which product is better is I think a function of your ability and intention.
        No doubt apple has more widespread use – as far as applications.
        And I don’t just mean hundreds of thousands of useless things.
        Their garage-band/music stuff is something android can’t touch at all right now I think and that is a huge market in itself.
        Other than that – the percieved (and maybe actual) simplicity of the apple ipad experience may well sell better or even be better for less technically inclined consumers.
        But I think even now, minus the music side, technical types are more into the possibilities of android.
        I guess ‘possibilities’, you might say, is the key word.
        But it is still an important one I think.
        We’ll see.
        I am still holding off myself.
        I am very curious to see if asus comes out with anything (as hinted) with the I/R touch technology as used on the recent nook e-reader.  I thought I had read earlier that they were going to have something with that this year which would allow both touch and stylus.
        And then there is lenovo.
        Thinkpad history is too rich to not be anxious to see their play.
        Interesting times at any rate.
        This is much better and more fun then just waiting to see if somebody comes with another 128kb of onboard cache on the CPU like the old days.
        hahahahahahahaha

      • dstrauss says

        I saw that article as well, and for the life of me can’t find it either. The point the author was making in that article was that the Staples customers expected the tablets to replace laptops, or at least netbooks, and they really are not there yet. I would agree with that theory, and I know many folks at our office are thinking the same – should I get an “iPad or xxxAndroid so I can quit carrying my laptop.” Or better still, “if I get a tablet, bluetooth keyboard, case/stand, will I be able to leave my laptop home?” Considering that neither scenario supports true MS office fidelity, and in the second duplicates the size and weight of an ultralight notebook (think Air or the new Sony), you’re not gaining ground with the tablet.

        Yes, the tablet has many great advantage, among them lightness and portability (if you leave the accessories behind), but witht eh exception of the still in need of seasoning HTC Flyer, none can do what many of us want – to replace our yellow pad note taking system.

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