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Too many tablets?


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Yes, a ridiculous number of tablets were announced at CES last week. We highlighted a bunch of them in last week's email, and even those were just scratching the surface. It can be a bit overwhelming, but I actually think this flood of tablets -- even if many of them are undifferentiated offerings that look like they were rushed out the door for a trade show -- is a good thing.

Why? Well, a few reasons. One is that all this activity finally marks the arrival of the tablet as a category in its own right (and not as a subcategory of PCs or PDAs). The initial success of the iPad probably had a lot to do with it. Eight-plus years since the introduction of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, (mostly) everyone has figured out that a tablet should have a touch-centric mobile OS and not a point-and-click-centric desktop OS.

So all of these manufacturers are basically betting that tablets are the next big wave of computing. PCs aren't going to die -- anyone who says that is just linkbaiting you -- but it looks like most of the growth going forward is going to be in more mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones. (One easy way to tell that the center of gravity has shifted is that apart from maybe the Samsung 9 Series there wasn't a single laptop at CES attracting any buzz.) As I said in my piece about HP and webOS a few months ago, if you make PCs you really don't want to be left behind if people start snapping up tablets at anything close to the rate at which they've snapped up laptops and smartphones. What's making things extra crazy with tablets is that, since they fall somewhere between smartphones and PCs, you have pretty much every smartphone maker AND every PC maker diving into the pool because everyone apparently feels like it's just adjacent to something they're already doing.

Another big reason I think this is a good thing is that it means that competition in the tablet space is going to be ferocious, and lots of competition usually means that consumers win. We've seen big improvements in memory capacity, screen resolutions, processor speeds, software, etc. in smartphones over the past couple of years, and there's every reason to believe we'll see a similar pace of innovation in tablets.

All this competition will also force prices down. Maybe not right away, but we're already seeing low end Android tablets come in around $200 or even less, and, as component costs fall, it may be hard for anyone to charge more for the average tablet than for the average netbook. The bigger players won't like that downward pressure on prices, but it really just means that if they want their tablets to command a premium, they'll actually have to offer -- gasp! -- a premium product that's head and shoulders above the rest of what's out there (and I think it's safe to say we've already seen a few tablets at CES that qualify).

Will it be harder for stuff like the Xoom and the PalmPad to stand out? Sure, but no harder than it's been for HTC, Motorola, and Samsung to build Android phones that stand out from the rest of what's out there -- and it's hard to argue that all the fierce competition in Android phones didn't directly result in a bunch of really promising devices being announced at CES. Keep in mind that even with over 150 other Android phones out there, it's really not that hard to draw attention to stuff like the Motorola Atrix 4G. It just means that you have to do something interesting and innovative; if you announce something that actually raises the bar in terms of features and specs it's actually really easy to get noticed.

What'll be interesting to see is if HP/Palm's use of webOS and RIM's strategy of tying the PlayBook so closely to the BlackBerry does enough to distinguish either enough from all the Android options out there to attract both consumers and developers. It could be that, given the rise of Android, it'll be just too difficult for anything that isn't iOS or Android to get enough traction with developers, and without hot apps -- and I think it's quality that matters here, not quantity -- consumers will probably stay away too.

In the meantime, even though it'll be a little tough to stay on top of all the different models out there -- and, yes, plenty of them will be garbage -- on the whole, we should be happy since lots of models means lots of options to choose from. Having lots of options to choose from doesn't always make things easier for the average consumer -- trying to pick a laptop or smartphone can be a little paralyzing at times (which is why we started gdgt!) -- but the overall result of all this competition is a world where the average person can spend a reasonable amount of money on almost any new laptop or smartphone and come away with something that is pretty damn good. To put it another way, there's no reason why the tablet market shouldn't be just like the markets for laptops and smartphones, right? In the grand scheme of things it's really hard to be upset about how much choice we have when it comes to all the laptops and smartphones are out there. We're going to have a similar abundance of options with tablets, whether we like it or not, and I think on the whole we should be happy about that.

As usual I'd love to get your thoughts on this, especially if you're in the market for a tablet or are thinking of buying one this year.

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14 replies

One concern I have with Android tablets is the speed that the devices become unsupported and obsolete. Look at the phone market, the Sony Experia X10 in the US has been announced to have no more Android OS updates, when it was released in the U.S. less than six months ago.

It is bad enough when your $200 phone becomes nearly instatntly obsolete, but such an issue is only amplified when it is your $500 or $600 tablet.
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I'm with you. I think it sucks that phones get left in the dust with old software or a lag in updates and I'm sure this will happen with these new tablets coming out.

In my mind, if it's not a pure Google Android experience, like the Nexus One or S, then I don't expect it to get the latest and greatest updates. I wouldn't be surprised if the Galaxy Tab never gets Honeycomb, but I'd fully expect the Xoom to be continually updated.

I don't see Google doing anything to resolve this problem because their current process goes along with their openness mantra.
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This is a good point. Since tablets do bridge a gap between smart phones and laptops companies are going to need to work out which they are going to be pulling from for a number of things. Design concepts, pricing, hardware changes, and as you bring up here software and OS iterations. With tablets costing closer to low end laptops than smart phones consumers will likely get a little irked to realize their recent tablet purchase no longer has the most up-to-date OS if updates continue to roll out at the fevered pitch we are seeing with smart phones (particularly Android).

Of course Google has stated Android should get on a more regular yearly schedule eventually, and updates have slowed slightly, but at the same time manufacturers are still failing to keep up.

Hardware is another issue all together. With dual core mobile processors like the Tegra 2 coming now it is hard for me to consider a single core tablet for purchase. Upgrades like this will continue to happen much as they have with smart phones. In then end though I am uncertain how concerned the average consumer is with having the newest and best device. Not to mention a rapid pace of innovation isn't such a bad problem to have as a consumer.
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The average Joe (or Jane) isn't going to want a $500 device that, like you note, is quickly obsolete. Especially when they find out that it have very limited capability, and they still need to have a computer to manage photos, manage an iPod or media player, connect to a printer or scanner, burn or rip a DVD or CD, all the things they want to do with a computer.

I have a Google CR-48, geeks aren't interested, its the non-geeks that want a computer that's so simple to use. The CR-48, like tablets, is very close to a great product for the masses, but if there's even a single function you can't perform, it won't replace a real computer. All of these platforms become very expensive if they don't perform the common computer tasks that almost everyone requires, because you still need a computer.
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I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, but the things that come to mind first are:

1. As much as I got excited about the future of tablets early into the iPad lifespan, time has tempered that excitement greatly and I am afraid the category may mirror the progression of the netbook category... low prices with lots of buzz, followed by tons of competition and even lower prices, followed by everyone with disposable income buying one since they are so cheap, ending with a lot of dust collectors that people end up not using once they get tired of the compromises involved. Now, I still use my netbook (the Linux Acer Aspire One with 8GB flash storage - one of the early models) a lot and I love it, however, I know a good number of people that bought netbooks because they were so cheap, but who lost interest quickly. People tend to put up with compromises on phones because of the extreme convenience. I believe people will tire of those same compromises on larger devices, though. Many will buy them to end up regretting not just buying a netbook or small laptop in the first place.

2. Carrying around a tablet is really a pain. A phone will fit in a pocket and the screen can be placed facing the leg for added protection. Tablets have to be either carried by hand or stuffed in a bag. In a bag, there is always risk to the screen unless it is a well-padded bag designed specifically for the purpose. If you have to carry another bag for a tablet anyway, why not just carry a laptop? The best use for tablets, in my mind, is to keep them laying around the house in places where quick internet use or gaming is desired but keeping a full computer is a drag... like the kitchen counter or near the sofa in the living room. I'd much rather carry a netbook that I can close and toss in my glove box without having to worry about a scratched or busted screen.

3. I am afraid that, with so many options, no one but the geeks are going to notice those "stand out" models you reference. The average consumer generally has to ask someone else if "32 gigahertz" is enough "memory". They don't know the difference between GB and GHz, so they can't tell which tablet is better. All they will care about in the purchasing process is whether they can "check their email" and "use the internet" - by which they often mean accessing Google. They will pick up every model in Best Buy, open their site of choice, and choose the cheapest of those models that actually load it in what they consider a reasonable amount of time. The upshot of this is that the "premium" models will usually only sell to the tech savvy - who will be very choosy and only the best of the "premiums" will get many sales. Even those will not likely sell enough to make the "premium" models viable enough to keep churning out. After getting burned once or twice on R&D for a premium model that ends up selling less than 10,000 units amidst of sea of cheap knock-offs, do we really believe any of the manufacturers will take another stab at that effort?

In the end, I think we will find ourselves looking back at tablets much the way we do at the Wii. When it came out, it was new and exciting. Once the excitement wore out, we found ourselves using it occasionally in certain circumstances (when the whole family is in town for Thanksgiving, etc...), but turning to our other options for our more frequent gaming (the 360 or PS3). So, sure, there will be cheap Android tablets on coffee tables all over America, but they will be collecting a nice layer of dust as we default to the even more convenient and readily available option that we already have: the smartphones in our pockets.
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One point worth thinking about i terms of comparing tablets to how other categories of computers/consumer electronics evolved in the past is how, in this case, one company (Apple) has had a single, category defining, product on the market for almost a year before anything resembling a viable competitor (the Galaxy Tab) emerged and even then the iPad's category market-share is probably still well North of 90%.

Are there any precedents?

The Sony Walkman?

The PalmPilot?

The iPhone?

But yes, your underlying point that the diversification of the category and competition within it is good for it is a sound one - it will certainly push innovation and drive-down prices - how far away are we from seeing low-end tablets free thanks to carrier subsidies?

It's just interesting to see that the innovation in the category has thus far been driven by one company.
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seems there are three players on three different OSs that will have the market. ipad , xoom , and playbook. I preffer xoom
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I am spending vacations in Paris with wife and two daughters and I'm living a real world experience in the tablet/netbook debate. To satisfy our need for comunications and fun I made a travel kit containing:
1 MacBook Air 11' (maxed-out specs)
1 iPad (wi-fi + 3g 64gig)
1 iPhone 4
And as soon as I landed in Paris I went to the Apple Store under the Louvre piramid (coooolll location) and got an Apple TV

Enough for a family of four? NO!
Everyday as we arrive at the flat I rented the girls dash to the MacBook. A brief fight ensues and the one who looses goes to the sofa with the iPad, usually with a tear in the eye. Why? Flash!
I have read Steve Job's opinions about Flash etc... but the girls don't care. They want their web games, specially Disney's super-cool (for the girls) Club Penguin. All Flash based.
Then there is GMail. For my girls using emoticons is essential for a proper comunication with their friends back home. GMail on the iPad lacks emoticons (maybe there's and app for that).
For me Skype is essential. No camera on the iPad.
Also we all want to watch on-line TV to keep current with news on our country and I found that video over wi-fi, specially non-YouTube videos, load much faster on the MacBook. Maybe the hardware is different...

Apple TV is option n. 3. Like a wating seat for the iPad > MacBook ladder.
But every day I find myself using Apple TV more and more.

Concluding; I love the iPad. I use it a lot. But as a travel companion, specially if you have children, it's not possible to compete with a netbook of some kind.

Ahh! And there is the iPhone 4. I inserted a French SIM card and turned off all internet connections. It's a great travel companion. The camera is good, specially with all the little apps that makes taking pictures more fun. I like the Pano app. Great for cathedrals!
And the iPhone is option n. 4. Like a consolation prize for the family member last in line for the other devices...
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A third category that tablets seem to fall under: personal media player. The first thing off of many lips when the iPad came out was "This is just a giant iPod touch!" At 10" it might be a bit much but the 5" and 7" tablets can slide into this category.

To further bolster the argument for including this third category, we're seeing tablet entries from companies like Archos and Coby. Not to mention Vizio, which was strictly a TV company and Viewsonic, a monitor company.

And oh, let's not forget the belle of the 2010 CES ball: e-readers. Although certainly e-ink has been rendered the ugly step-sister by all the pretty color screens, the Nook color is basically yet another Android tablet.

All of this is to say that you may actually be *understating* the competitive ecology for tablets right now.
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There is huge difference in the marketing of tablets and smart phones. Phones are sold through a service provider, and they select phones only from a few major manufacturers. They usually avoid the junk.

Tablets will mostly use Wi-Fi, with sales by Best Buy, Wal-mart, and Amazon. The retailers will worry only about returns (not customer service), and junk tablets might make it through the return period.

People that buy tablets will want them to provide all the functions they expect from a computer, like managing their iPod/media player and managing the photos from their digital camera, plus printing. If they discover that tablets have limited function for their needs, they will be unhappy with a $500 tablet if the purchase was made instead of a Notebook. Not so much with a $200 device.

Unlike a Windows notebook, I don't expect to see an iTunes app for Android. Will the Android tablets replace a Notebook by providing all the replacement functions? The early adopters probably all have computers, but later customers spending a lot of money for a tablet as their only device will be very unhappy if they still have to buy a computer.
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Right now the major tablets are being sold through carriers. The Motorola reps wouldn't even announce pricing for their own tablet, or any other possible distribution channels.

Anyway, there's a big difference for sure between low-end 7" tablets for $200 and high-end 10" tablets for $500, but the pricing is a red herring -- it's all about the form factor. Those 7" tablets make for great portable readers/media devices. At 10", you're really talking more about a net book replacement, and all the usage scenarios that those categories entail.

For instance: at 7" I could take my tablet out while commuting on a train, seat or no seat. At 10" it's burdensome enough that I'd at least think twice about it. At 7" i wouldn't even consider leaving my laptop at home; I'd take both. At 10", I could probably get by with just the tablet.

Again, it's like when everyone was dismissing the iPad as a giant iPod touch. However true that may be, the size really does influence the user experience in a tangible, practical way. These 7" tablets may just be a smaller iPad, but I think there's a definite and separate market for this form factor.
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Agreed... the 7" will appeal to a different audience then the 10".

Even though there is all this hype, A lot of people are already paying for a smart phone data plan. Adding another data plan for a tablet does not make sense when I am already carrying around a smart phone all of the time.
Wait till the high end tablets are offered in WiFi only models. Then Netbooks will be history and laptops will be in trouble.
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As usual, Peter gives me something to think about. I think the vast choice of tablets speaking as a "gadget nerd" is good because we can parse through all the spec sheets and feature lists and make sense of them. I think where all this choice hurts (and you elude to this a bit at the end) is with every other consumer. Let's face it: if you ask the average Android user why they bought that device, they'd be hard pressed to give you even three meaningful reasons. I think this relates to the tablet situation. I have an launch iPad and I sit in a high traffic area in a large tech company with people who should know more about this stuff. The main questions I get are, "Well, so do you like it?" and then right after it they ask, "So, what kinda stuff do you do with it?" What am I saying? Simply put, the market is growing too quickly without building a very definitive list of bullet points about why people should stroll into a Best Buy and charge up $300-600 bucks. I may be wrong, but I don't think enough has been done to 'productize' this stuff so that the average person knows what the value proposition is. Having a wall of black screens to choose from is only going to complicate this.

When Honeycomb releases, it will make for a more functional device, but it's still not addressing the 'value question' to consumers. And without getting into the whole, "If you're an OEM, is letting Google control Android releases a gift or a curse?" argument, it starts to make sense that all I heard from the CES coverage relating to hardware companies and their tablets was hardware. Anyway.... getting back to the marketing of the Xoom or the PalmPad, I disagree. I think it WILL be more difficult to market these things to the populous. Maybe not for the PalmPad, because they'll probably (and smartly so) highlight feature sets. Phones are different. Everyone needs a phone. This is something that not everyone is totally convinced that they need yet. Choosing from 16 models from various different hardware makers will make that buyer's remorse loom even larger.
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Seems they are far more trouble than they are a boon as they resemble a laptop without a cover - similar weight and dimensions without all the promised bells and whistles.

Hear they make great paperweights...and those that access the Internet make the paperweight an interesting diversion
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