The Great Tablet Massacre of 2011

What was once a field of dreams two years ago is now littered with casualties. Hopes and hype have been dashed. Strategies have been changed and are changing again. Generals have fallen. The fortunes of competitors have been ransacked, as others continue to enrich their treasuries. The fallout thus far will most likely be just as, if not more, disruptive than the decisions to commit to battle in the first place.

I’m talking about the Great Tablet Massacre of 2011. It was supposed to be the Year of the Tablet 2.0. Indeed if you are Apple or Amazon you could probably make that claim. If you’re Barnes and Noble you are holding on and glad you’re still in the fight. If you’re Asus you’re ready to enter the game anew. But if you’re HP, RIM, Motorola, Samsung, Google, or any of the others who focused your efforts on Tablets this year, you’re retrenching and licking your wounds at best, or possibly thinking about a complete retreat. If you’re Microsoft you’re glad you decided to retreat a year ago after boastfully waving your sword in the early going (as if there was really a choice), hoping that there will be a new opportunities after the chaotic battles of 2011 sorted out the winners and the losers.

The Long Run Up To War

Before I get to the battles themselves let’s go back to the early rumblings that began the Tablet wars. In many ways it began with Microsoft’s vision of Tablet computing. The main battle to be fought back then matched the technology of those days against the vision of what a Tablet could be. But Microsoft’s found ways to create its own internal warfare by not being clear on how to market the original vision. Microsoft fought itself into corner of its own battlefield that it could neither advance or retreat from. Meanwhile its opponents were lurking, paying attention, and beginning to arm themselves.

Then came Netbooks. Asus changed the course of things with a new weapon on the battlefield: the original Eee PC. First, it walked away from Microsoft using a Linux based OS. This was a loud shot that echoed with many reverberations. Microsoft hadn’t been challenged like this before and the Notebook revolution shook Microsoft to its core. Microsoft would later reclaim this turf once consumers started to want more and Microsoft was content to extend the life of XP to keep them happy. But even as consumers did want more Asus had sneakily changed the price and value proposition, proving to consumers that they didn’t need full featured PCs to do the fundamental tasks that many ended up doing on PCs anyway. It also left an indelible impression with consumers that, for many, computers didn’t have to cost over $1000.  A low cost, low performing machine was just fine for email and most web browsing. Throw in media viewing and you had a potent weapon.

As all the players ran headlong into the Netbook wars technology was slowly improving to the point where improved battery life on low powered processors began to become the driving factor. Intel and others kept trying to make inroads with new processors, but on another front-mobile phones that were slowly gaining consumer acceptance, were doing so on the strength of processor architecture that offered a different alternative. It wasn’t perfect yet, but these processors were gaining ground.

And then mobile phones became SmartPhones. Apple changed the game with the original iPhone on all fronts. The original iPhone chased the opponents off of the field and they began to retrench, rearm and retool. Touch became viable. Computing in your hand became doable for the masses.  (We’d later learn that Apple temporarily halted its iPad plans to move the iPhone forward.) In the mad scramble to gain some advantage, Google emerged with its Android plans adding a new Superpower to the fray as Microsoft’s dominance began to fade. Nokia and RIM couldn’t (or wouldn’t) move its troops (or generals) quickly enough and the stage was set for the Tablet Wars to come.

Battle Joined

2010 dawned as The Year of the Tablet v 1.0. CES 2010 was full of boasting from the new Tablet warriors as they girded for battle. Apple wasn’t even present but dominated the thinking and the news with its soon to be announced iPad. Once it was announced, the battlefield changed. But no one could discern how. Opponents jockeyed for position waiting to see how and if Apple would define the need for this new Tablet weapon. Plans and schedules changed. And then to everyone’s surprise, (including Apple’s) the original iPad swept the field in such a dominating fashion that many of it opponents simply retreated with plans to come back and fight another day. Or another year, in the case of Microsoft.

Advertisement

The War Continues

2011 began with new hopes among the Tablet warriors. Google’s Honeycomb would soon take the field to save the day, with Motorola being the first Google ally to carry the Android banner onto the battlefield. HP was promising a webOS Tablet that looked ilke a serious opponent. RIM was reading from a new playbook with the Playbook. Samsung was going to also ride Android onto the field, using different flavors for different devices, and it looked like by year’s end there would be a real Tablet War going on with multiple opponents slugging it out in the marketplace. Meanwhile Apple was not resting on its laurels and Amazon was lurking.

As 2011 progressed it became clear, as in all wars, that factors such as wealth, the weather, and leadership would play an important role. Opponents with wealth focused on building their supply lines (Apple, Google, Amazon and everyone else calls them ecosystems). All eyes turned to the skies as the Cloud became an increasing component of every arsenal. Dropbox, Netflix, and Angry Birds played Switzerland becoming important neutral allies for all comers. Google and Amazon cut their deals with the content companies and the rest promised ecosystems would arrive once they took the field. That proved to be a strategic mistake. Weather events in Japan and Thailand affected supply chains and only the nimble and the prosperous were able to shift their plans accordingly.

But eventually, one by one the opponents mounted their steeds and appeared on the battlefield. First Motorola with its Honeycomb banner unfurling in the breeze rushed into the fray. Both its hardware and surprisingly the software was found lacking and Motorola took a beating. Motorola would later in the year sell its Mobile division to Google in a promise of battles yet to come. Then Samsung began to unfold its campaign with an array of weapons that sometimes confused the marketplace and itself. Mimicking Motorola, a part of Samsung’s strategy was to use Honeycomb, but unfortunately, Motorola had already proven that Google’s Tablet OS had flaws. As Samsung looked like it might see some early success, Apple opened another front in the war by unleashing its lawyers on Samsung (and HTC). This sewed uncertainty and disrupted everyone’s focus, forcing a shift in resources in a patent acquisition war that threatened to overcome the war for the marketplace. The great promise of Honeycomb faltered, and Google and its allies cast their glances towards a better future with Ice Cream Sandwich as they licked their wounds by fighting off the lawyers.

RIM launched its assault with the Playbook, and demonstrated that leadership and vision were not just important but vital components of any successful strategy. It QNX OS was generally liked, its hardware was so-so, but for a company that made its once fearsome reputation on email and messaging, it sadly left those arrows in its quiver without firing its most potent weapon. Undaunted, RIM continued to fight, gradually giving ground with price cuts, but the leadership challenges unveiled in the Tablet Wars have probably crippled the company forever. RIM guessed so badly here that it couldn’t even rationalize adopting the motto of many a defeated Tablet warrior, saying that its effort was intended for the Enterprise.

And then there is HP. After investing heavily with the acquisition of Palm, HP went its own way promising a webOS Tablet that looked to all watching like it would be a real competitor. HP had the infrastructure, webOS was generally thought to be a good OS, and the prospects on the day of battle  were good. It launched its assault and then mysteriously clammed that it hadn’t launched yet, even with troops on the field. That move heralded bad things to come. Either the generals didn’t know what their troops were doing, or were not interested in the fight to begin with. Sadly, after committing strongly, HP left the field severely wounded, forcing a change of leadership, and relegating webOS to a possible insurgent campaign under the banner of Open Source.

As autumn dawned, Apple still held all the strategic advantages. Google and its allies were badly wounded with Motorola and Samsung hoping for new life in the next year. RIM and HP had removed themselves from the field of battle with crippling losses. And Amazon was ready to make its move.

With a strong supply line and resources to match, Amazon went its own way and ignored the me-too Tablet frenzy that drove others to try and meet Apple head on. The Kindle Fire Tablet launched as what many consider a decent, but flawed weapon. But it outflanked all the competition with a march on a key objective: price point. Amazon faced competition with the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, but the long view seems to pit Amazon more against Apple based on resources and the supply lines available. Amazon certainly looks armed to wage war in a long campaign and many feel that Amazon has only begun to fight as 2011 draws to a close.

The War Going Forward

Surveying the battlefield as we head into 2012, we see three major opponents still standing: Apple, Google and its allies, and Amazon. Microsoft is preparing to launch its campaign in 2012 and carries as much baggage as it does promise on its approach to the battlefield it helped create. Asus is poised to carry the Android banner into battle yet again with the Transformer Prime. Apple is poised to retain its dominance and lose some of its luster if it can’t get its iCloud Air Force to fulfill its promise. Amazon won’t be resting on its laurels and will certainly surprise. Google is pointing towards the middle of the year as when it will have its newly armed forces ready to go. Google should be concerned that its eager allies, and the many insurgents it allows to use its software don’t spoil its fighting trim by releasing their own ICS Tablets too soon, or too crippled to put up a good fight.

The Tablet Wars continue.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Two quibbles. First, the omission of the Nook Color in the Battle Joined section. I think it points to a problem that Android has with fragmentation – not OS fragmentation but perception fragmentation. The Nook Color, despite being a tablet which runs Android was not perceived as an “Android tablet” or as an iPad competitor. Why, other than B&N’s positioning of it, I can’t say.

    Second, further back in your timeline, I would add that Microsoft’s vision of tablet computing was implemented by some (both as slates and convertibles) but was priced higher than laptops. Those tablets were marketed as “laptop plus” devices. Because of this, they never gained traction since most people didn’t see the need for the stylus and touch was not an option.

  2. Anonymous says

    I think the post misses the main point moving forward: people are ready/itching to have a tablet as thir sole PC, but they need to have a competent desktop (keyboard, mouse) interface and dock (larger screen, network) to do that.
    Which will be the first OS to succeed in transitioning to a dual-use mode ?

    • Tea Pixie says

      Wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft is, if Windows 8 turns out to be as good as they’re trumpeting about. I’m of the Apple loyal myself, but I’m intrigued as to how well this operating system they’re building will act as a bridge between tablet and PC, since it’s designed to run on both platforms rather then focus on one exclusively. If it’s actually good it could herald another new era for computing – and will also be the first truly innovative thing Microsoft has ever produced.

      Even if it fails they get brownie points in my book for trying. While everyone else is following Apple’s lead with dedicated tablet OS’s, (coughGoogle) because we already know they’re successful, Microsoft is striking out and trying something completely different, a system designed to bring tablets and PC’s together which will likely spawn a whole new range of products. (Superpowered tablets/touchscreen PC’s which dock to keyboards/usb hubs/networks yet can be easily lifted away and used as tablets on the road.) It’s very un-Microsoft to take such a bold path and I hope it works out well for them. The very fact that they’re trying seems to herald a new direction for Microsoft as a company that innovates rather then just copies whatever’s doing well. These are very exciting times we live in and I can’t wait to see whether this new renegade Microsoft will do well. I hope they do, it’s a fantastic direction for them to be moving in!

  3. Dragonfyre13 says

    Well, the transformer prime has beat the pants off of everyone (apple included) in the “dual purpose” arena. The original transformer was a resounding success (could NOT find them anywhere, though a great many people wanted them) because of this, however supply issues hurt them a lot there. With the prime they seriously improved all complaints people had with it, added a lot more that improved the overall experience, though not related to a single item, and kept the crazy good “dual mode” switching between a keyboard/mouse and tablet interface. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better tablet for dual usage (I bought one, got it about a week ago, and while VERY skeptical, I really honestly think it’s a work of art).

    Having a processor and graphics card that get (at least) quite close to apple’s in terms of power and effective usage (games, UI responsiveness, etc) seriously helps the situation as well. Tablets in particular are one area where this matters more than most, the integration of software and hardware, and this is why it’s difficult to take down apple on their terms for many of these manufacturers. The prime simply changes things up, adds a lot to take on apple’s fight, but throws in some curve balls that put it well above them in a handful of areas (again, “dual mode” keyboard/mouse usage, but also sdxc card in the dock with a microsdhc card in the tablet, battery life beats iPad by a wide margin if including keyboard dock, and meets iPad without the dock) 

    Where this would get really interesting is the addition of the padphone and other similar objects. Dock your phone into the tablet shell, it’s a tablet. Dock that into a keyboard dock and it’s a netbook. Give that dock a VGA port (and the USB port(s) that the prime already has) and it’s pretty close to a desktop. That’s going to be the next thing that really kicks the tires of the tablet market, as it allows one device to do so very much more than anything else out there, and doesn’t limit you to a form factor. It just needs to be pulled off as well as the transformer prime.

    • Robert says

      I agree with your assesment.  I have noticed that anyone who really uses their tablet quickly aquires a keyboard for it.  The Transformer prime is a foreshadowing of the future of computing. 

      Pair that hardware platform with a powerhouse OS like Windows 8 and now you have something awesome.  You won’t think of it as a tablet competitor, but rather a tablet/desktop/latpop replacement.

  4. GTaylor says

    This article shows a great
    deal of research; I’d love to see your notes. I will keep it in my files
    especially for the chronology you lay out.

     

    The article is given in the
    form of an analogy. An analogy is like a shadow play, it collapses certain
    dimensions in order to emphasize others. As thorough as your article is the
    missing dimensions are integral to your discussion.

     

    You step out of the
    tablette battle, quite properly, when you mention cellphones and smartphones.
    Many of the actions you discuss originate beyond this battle field. The major
    participants are phones, services, other computer forms, various usage modes,
    and real, perhaps unrealized, needs. I think these factors affect the situation
    more than you showed.

     

    But the major missing
    dimension, in my own opinion, is that the battlefield it is not a two dimensional
    surface. It has great depth, texture, and obvious and hidden features. This
    battlefield is not the location of the battle. It is the major participant in
    this war. All other participants, while not allied, are directing their efforts
    against this one participant.

     

    This is the consumer. The
    prize held by the consumer is customer loyalty and a regular spot in the
    budget. Forget fanboy rants, customer loyalty drafts the customer as the
    psychological operations operative for the manufacturers, software companies,
    and service providers. Keep the customer ignorant of real needs and performance
    issues and there will be a regular spot in the customer’s monthly and yearly budget.

     

    Remember the old saying:

    When the elephants battle
    the grass gets trampled.

Leave a Reply