The tablet computer category has effectively emerged from nowhere, off the back of a single device – Apple’s iPad. It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest that 2011 will be the “year of the tablet,” if only because of the range of devices set to reach the market. In addition to vendors, who have a range of products in the works, operators have also identified tablets as potential growth drivers, and there will be a wide range of products available at a number of different price points, to appeal to different-sized wallets. But the big question is whether this is a sustainable market in the long term.
Recent weeks have seen a number of surveys published by analyst firms. Last week, Ovum forecasted shipments of 150.1 million devices with “lite” operating systems in the calendar year 2015, while in October Juniper Research forecast that 81 million tablet devices will be sold in the same year. Gartner was even more bullish, forecasting shipments of more than 208 million “media tablet” units in 2014.
There are some differences between the definitions used. Ovum’s “lite OS” definition excludes tablets powered by Windows 7, but adds in devices with other form factors, for example netbook devices powered by a basic OS. Juniper’s tablet definition appears to include Windows 7 devices, but excludes any other mobile internet devices or computers which adopt a platform such as Android. Like Ovum, Gartner’s figures are only for “lite” OS devices, and this also appears to exclude other form factors – meaning the survey with the narrowest definition has the largest forecast.
Who will buy?
What is less clear is who the buyers of tablet computers will be, and what will drive their decisions. In many use cases, it is not a particularly onerous task to come up with an alternative that would be better suited, often by being more focused on the task at hand. Which means that tablets are in danger of finding themselves an average jack-of-all-trades, without a clear USP to attract buyers beyond the early adopters and the cash-rich.
Gartner suggests that some of the growth will come from the cannibalisation of other consumer electronics devices, such as e-readers, gaming devices and media players. But in each category, dedicated devices are available that are more focused, cheaper, and in many cases offer additional portability. Certainly tablets have the advantage that they can perform each of these roles adequately, should an owner want to read ebooks in the morning and play games in the afternoon – but whether this is enough to create a sustainable market is not obvious.
The PC substitution model also seems flawed: any user attempting to do “serious” computing on a tablet – word processing, spreadsheet manipulation – is going to be hampered by the lack of a keypad, and the lack of support for fully-fledged office applications. There are other shortcomings: the lack of common peripheral support and drivers is notable. Gartner highlights a role for larger devices, for example the 10” screen iPad, in the enterprise space, although it also notes that with users likely to already have PCs and smartphones, the tablet would be a “third device” – a category that many enterprises will be unwilling to support.
Perhaps the bigger issue for the tablet is the increased penetration and advanced functionality of the smartphone. For mobile email use and light web surfing, most smartphones will do a more than adequate job, with the advantage of being more portable and more personal. With customers familiar with long-term contracts for handsets, the potential to offer subsidised smartphones also means that devices can be priced competitively, whereas the market for subsidised tablet devices with data contracts is unproven. Do customers want to pay another monthly fee for a device that is likely to be used primarily in areas where there is WiFi coverage? While a similar model has previously been offered for netbook computers, there has been a notable lack of operators trumpeting the success this has brought them.
Unlike smartphones, the tablet market also does not appear to lend itself to an upgrade model: once customers have bought a device, there is little incentive to buy a new one in the future, except to replace a broken unit. As some surveys have shown that tablet users are “nomadic” rather than “mobile,” with devices largely used in the home or office, and protected in a bag or case when on the move, the light usage patterns that a tablet will see are unlikely to prove too taxing.
It doesn’t take the memory of an elephant to remember a similar “next big thing.” Late in 2008, it was the netbook computer that was the saviour of the PC world, offering low-cost computing in a market defined by the global economic crisis. Fast-forward just two years, and the netbook is yesterday’s man – still a reasonable global market, but with sales having reached a plateau as customers who appreciate the portability already own a device, or have explored a tablet instead, while mass-market consumers switch their preference to more capable, but increasingly cost-effective, PCs.
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