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Scott's Column
The Tablet

February 1, 2011
By Scott Lewis

This month I am going to cover one topic... the Tablet. I am going to attempt to cover all tablets, what is good and bad about them in general as well as cover some specifics. Unfortunately I don't know how to do this topic justice without rambling, so bare with me and read on. I think you might find it enlightening.

For some history you might want to read these items I have written in the past:

Market Fragmentation

As I see it the tablet market is a either very fragmented, or not fragmented at all. The iPad doesn't have any real competition. The Samsung Galaxy Tab is the closest, but it really doesn't actual come close. It's like saying the closest star to our solar system is close... when it is almost 25 trillions miles away.

With the iPad having sold over 15 million units, it does not have any real competition and so the market is not fragments.

Or you could say that with something like 80 tablets displayed (working or not) at CES this past January that the market is very fragmented. After all you have tablets from everyone with quite a few operating systems.

iPad or What?

Let's face facts. The iPad is a really well executed tablet computer. It is not powerful enough to replace many computers, but if you have very modest needs then it is possible it might be all you need. Few tablets are going to be able to make that claim

For myself I need a full computer for all I use a computer for. However, the iPad could cover about 80-90% of my time on a computer. Meaning that most of the time I am on a computer I am doing tasks the iPad could do. I would still need a computer for those other task that the iPad can't do, and most likely not be able to do for a long time.

Price

The iPad at it cheapest is $499. Remember, Apple products fetch a premium, so it is likely a high profit margin device for them. Because of that other manufacturers will need to undercut the iPad on price. But can they do that an still match (preferably beat) the iPad on the user experience. Why save $100 if you have too many compromises when using some other tablet?

I have seen that some tablets are cheaper when they come with a data plan. That is not the way to beat Apple. If you table only costs less than an iPad when you get have to pay a monthly fee as well then it is not cheaper. I have not seen anything that can match the iPad as a stand alone device (WiFi only).

Software (OS and Apps)

Android based laptops that use a version of Android optimized for a tablet is a step in the right direction. But remember, the iPad has thousands of apps written specifically for it. The OS is only half the software battle... you have to have applications that run well because they were designed for the device. Since the Android Marketplace for phone apps has spilled into the 6 figures (over 100,000 apps) it is just a matter of time before developers make apps specifically for tablets running Honeycomb (Android 3.0).

But what about Blackberry's Tablet OS, and HP's webOS? They will have an extremely hard time swaying developers to write apps for their platforms when the market will be flooded with Android based tablets alongside iPads.

Then there is Microsoft. Microsoft has been pushing the tablet for years. However, hardware was not up to the task. Windows based tablets were mostly convertible laptops that had screens you could write on. This meant adding features to a laptop, so it only made sense that convertible tablets would cost more than a laptop.

And that is where Apple succeeded where Microsoft failed. Apple provided a less powerful device than a laptop that ran lots of simple applications. Microsoft provided an operating system that required a powerful laptop to run well... and it was just Windows... an operating system the was very much mouse centric. Apple got us hooked on the touch interface with the iPhone, which made the iPad possible.

Microsoft has two choices if it wants to compete in the tablet market.

1) Make Windows work well with a touch interface. I haven't seen this yet with all the touch based all-in-one computers. Windows requires more precise control... such as with a stylus. But then it is not easy to use when all you want to do is touch. So... can Microsoft make Windows work well with touch and a stylus. If so I think it can do well in the tablet space.

2) Microsoft's other choice is naturally to take Windows Phone 7 to the tablet. This is a touch interface OS, just like Apple has with the iPhone. This makes a lot of sense, but it reaches back to the issues with webOS and BlackBerry's offering. Will developers build apps for it... or will they be content to just build their apps for iOS and Android. This will decide Microsoft's fate.

Marketplace

On the Android front... Google finally made the one change that was absolutely critical to the success of an Android based tablet... a Web based Android Marketplace. I have wanted something like this since the day I got my HTC Hero last year. It's about time. Up until this new Marketplace your only way to get apps for an Android device was through the Marketplace installed on the device through the data plan. A WiFi tablet could not get Android Apps. Now we have that ability... and mix that with Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) and we have a serious chance to see some laptops that will complete with the iPad.

Microsoft is trying to get its Phone 7 Marketplace ramped up. They can easily tie this into the Zune Marketplace to allow browsing for apps on a computer and not just the device itself. However, as long as apps can be installed across WiFi a large format, easily browsed marketplace is good enough.

Ecosystem

I don't know what to say here. Apple has an killer ecosystem. It works... and works very well. However, it does have some problems. It is a closed system. If Apple doesn't like a developer's app it doesn't get in. And Apple takes a significant cut of the action.

Regardless, it is the best integration we have, so they others are all playing catch up. We'll just have to see if Google and Microsoft can build an effective ecosystem. Since Google and Microsoft are dependent on many manufacturers for the hardware, they are always going to be playing catch to build a truly seemly environment. With others companies there are more that want a piece of the action.

Touch vs. Stylus

I touched (no pun intended) on the touch and style aspect to tablets above when talking about Microsoft. The iPad owes its success to the iPhone, which was created as a purely touch based device. Apple took that to the next level and created a tablet with the same touch interface.

Samsung showed a tablet at CES that had a slide out keyboard and a stylus. It weighed about 1/2 pound more than an iPad. I liked it... a lot. It ran Windows 7 and could be used once in a while as a replacement for a laptop. Of course, it is not a shipping product, so it might be too slow to be effective... but it was the best tablet format I have seen for a Windows tablet that supports both touch and a stylus. If they price is right this will be for me.

I know I am in a minority wanting real applications and a stylus on a tablet computer. I want to run Photoshop and draw on the screen. Most people don't care about that. I concede that if you load the regular Windows 7 on a tablet you are asking for trouble in the touch department. Some elements of Windows are just too small to accurately work with a finger.

What Microsoft could do is build a touch based shell that sits on top of Windows that allows programs to be optimized for touch. Hey, wait... that's what Window Phone 7 is all about. So maybe we don't need a Windows tablet after all. But it is the kind of tablet that appeals to me. I would buy it if the price to performance is right. Though I suspect it will not do well in today's market of disposable cell phones, iPhones, iPods & even iPads.

I think this will be a hard thing to get past. If you provide stylus support you cater to a niche market, and won't sell a lot of units. So go for the touch user and you need to use a touch specific operating system. For Microsoft that means Windows Phone 7, which is an extension of my Zune's software.

Conclusion

What it boils down to is this... a tablet will be successful if it has the following features:

1) Easy to use.
2) Robust availability of software... that is easy to install and (hopefully) use.
3) Reasonable price.
4) Looks Cool!

That really is it. The iPad is a very good looking piece of hardware. But it would not exit today if it were not for the iPhone. Remember, the iPad uses a mildly modified version of the iPhone operation system... not a version of the Mac operating system. By using the iPhone OS (iOS) Apple create a tablet "that everyone knows how to use." Because they already learned it with the iPhone. Add to that the iPad runs almost every app for the iPhone and we already have 3 of our 4 criteria for a successful tablet covered.

Reasonable price is what the competition has to figure out. Windows has been pushing tablets for years. They have had special tablet versions of Windows for tablets for a long time. Unfortunately, Microsoft's vision of a tablet ran Windows and was a full blow computer. Which means it was more expensive that a typical laptop. Oops. That does not create a reasonable price. Add to that Windows applications tend to be difficult to use.

Phone apps had to be made simple so they could be used easily on a portable device. That was a perfect lead in to the iPad. So now other manufactures need to mimic that. The customer base is already tainted and expect lots of small, narrowly focused apps to be ready to go. This is why Android has a good chance to go toe-to-toe with the iPad.

People either love Apple or hate them. I am neither.. I like Apple. I just can't afford Apple products. I am also a programmer and know my way around a computer so well that I don't need a tablet that is so easy to use that it can't handle more advanced tasks. And that is my own problem, because the iPad has already set the bar for how tablets will be used.

The average consumer doesn't care about all that technical rig-a-morale. They want to plug it in and it works. You can buy apps directly from the device, or you can browse apps on your computer to buy & sync to the device.

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