August 8 2011
by Todd Hixon

Tablets Turn 18

We’re now 18 months post the iPad announcement.  Like an 18 year-old, the tablet has matured a lot, but still has a way to go.  Here are some key things I have learned.

Tablets are a new, major segment of the mobile device market, 40-50 million units this year, a big fraction of the ~250m unit laptop market.  They are taking volume from laptops (more) and specialized devices like electronic picture frames and DVD players.  Netbooks are toast. And tablets are creating new demand, much as e-book readers did.

The touch screen UI has proved to be profound. Watching a small child with a touch screen device, you see something amazing:  kids get it fast with no help.  My grand daughter mastered iOS at 5 without questions, and now makes my Android phone work. My partner reports his daughter works an iPhone at 21 months [one-upped again].  Touch UI seems to connect with the wiring of the brain.

The biggest use for tablets is media consumption:  movies, games, music, web surfing, e-books, reading e-mail. Typing on a glass screen is sub-optimal, ditto carrying a separate keyboard. But, I am impressed by how many people use tablets for travel on shorter trips.  Despite input and file access limitations, the light weight and small size are compelling, and most of us can avoid heavy typing for a day or two.

Apple dominates the market; Android has made a poor start; and all the others are out of sight (more).  The iPad shows how much advantage Apple has built in its iOS business system: content availability and cost/performance are are key.  Preceding iOS devices brought a rich assortment of digital content to the iOS platform.  Android lags well behind.  One example:  NetFlix shipped for the iPad day 1 and is just now available on Android tablets.

Apple leverages cost savings and design learning across the iOS platform. iPad/iPhone/iTouch share the OS, screen technology, flash memory, and often a custom Apple processor, driving advantages in component and design cost.  And Apple’s design experience makes its products smaller, lighter, less expensive, with less battery required.

Google tried to take the iPad head-on with Android 3.0 and the Xoom. Despite ambitious design, 3.0/Xoom offers no great functional advance over iPad2, has far less content, is buggy, and struggles to get to parity price.  No wonder that few were sold.

There’s a burgeoning market for lower-priced Android tablets (≤$300) offering most of the iPad’s capability at a big discount.  This market could build Android tablet volume and content availability, reduce component cost, and increase design experience, paring away Apple’s advantage.  Plus, Android tablets are well suited for the emerging vertical tablets markets.  This, of course, is the “Let A Thousand Flower Bloom” strategy that Microsoft and Intel used in the ‘80s and ‘90s to marginalize Apple in the PC market.  It looks like a good tablet strategy for the ‘teens, too.


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