iPad vs. the World: Tablet Market Gets Weird: Page 2

Posted December 15, 2010

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

(Page 2 of 2)

One report out of Taiwan predicts that tablets may displace up to 40% of the netbook market. And it also appears that tablets are preventing some consumers from buying netbooks and notebooks, even if they haven't decided to buy a tablet yet.

More interesting than the rational replacement of clam-shell devices for slates, we're also seeing irrational consumer behavior. Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn said during an earnings call this week that the iPad is hurting PC sales not only by serving as an alternative, but also creating uncertainty in the market. Dunn said: "More overall customers migrating to tablets, and customers waiting, as they consider their purchase decisions on tablets versus netbooks and notebooks."

It gets weirder: eBooks may be evolving into touch tablets. Barnes and Noble’s Nook Color, which is supposedly an eBook reader that competes with the Amazon Kindle, is slated to get an Android upgrade, which created speculation that it would be able to run apps and, essentially, double as an Android tablet. The company says no, but eBook readers are clearly evolving in that direction.

In fact, a great blurring is starting to occur between mobile device categories. Today, it's generally clear what's a smartphone, tablet, netbook, notebook and eBook reader. By this time next year: not so much.

We'll have big smartphones, tiny tablets, devices that function as netbooks, notebooks and touch tablets, eBook readers that run apps, and tablets optimized for eBook reading, laptops with two touch screens and even full-sized desktops oriented horizontally for use as giant iPads.

There are unanswerable questions. Is a clamshell device with an on-screen keyboard on the bottom half a laptop or a tablet? Is a 17-inch tablet a mobile device? Is a smart phone with a 6-inch screen a phone or a tablet?

Consumers will be confused by complexity. Tablets will be available running Windows 7, possibly Windows 8, probably Windows Phone 7, multiple versions of Android, webOS, Linux, MeeGo, the Blackberry OS and, of course, Apple's iOS.

Platforms will vary wildly in the quality of their app stores. On Android, some devices will use the central store, others will favor stores created by the device makers.

Some will be touch. Others will be pen. Some will be both. Some tablets will replace desktop PCs. Others will replace smart phones. There will be no clear lines separating phones, eBook readers, touch tablets, pen tablets, netbooks, laptops and even desktops.

Gadget geeks like you and me are comfortable with this kind of complexity and this range of choice. But everyday consumers, upon whom tablet superstardom depends, freeze. Buying a tablet will become a very difficult homework assignment. Brand names will blur together. Consumers will struggle to understand the arcane and subtle differences between platforms, feature sets, app stores, connectivity options and document compatibility.

All this complexity will favor Apple. The reason is that Apple will become viewed as the safe, reliable system that doesn't require a lot of thought, risk or learning. Consumers will know they have a huge app store and plenty of apps, a mature 2.0 tablet platform and plenty of cool peripheral devices and accessories.

What's interesting about next year's tablet tsunami is that dozens of companies -- maybe even hundreds if you count the many Chinese brands -- will ship 1.0 tablets by summer. But Apple will probably ship the iPad 2.0.

Even when the market is deluged by devices, Apple will still stand apart in the minds of consumers.

I could be wrong. The tsunami could bury Apple's iPad. But I think it won't. I think that for the next few years, Apple will continue to dominate the tablet market.

But even if it doesn't, the now-quiet, easy-to-understand tablet market is about to get very, very weird. It's going to be an interesting year.

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