Switched On: Mined the gap

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|02.06.10

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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

At the introduction of the iPad, Steve Jobs showed a simple slide illustrating one of the burning questions in the industry for many years. On the left was a smartphone. On the right was a laptop. And in the middle was a gap. Apple, like many companies in the PC industry, was seeking to create a product that filled this gap. Indeed, the iPad itself reflects elements of the Apple devices that flank it. Its enclosure resembles the silver metallic enclosure of a MacBook Pro, but inside, it has the ARM processor architecture and operating system of the iPhone.

But the iPad is but the latest in a long line of products and would-be general-purpose devices that seeks to fill this gap, most of them short-lived. Some of the more recent ones include the aborted Palm Foleo, the Sony Mylo, Nokia Internet Tablets, UMPCs, and MIDs. Why are so many companies convinced there is opportunity in these products?

Let's turn back the clock to 2002, the year Handspring launched its first smartphone, the monochrome 160 x 160-pixel Treo 180. It was the year that Verizon Wireless launched the first 3G network in the U.S. and the year MobileStar declared bankruptcy after deploying public Wi-Fi throughout many Starbucks locations in 2001. In 2002, PC World awarded its World Class Award for ultralight notebooks to the Fujitsu LifeBook P-2000. It was less than three pounds and had a 10.6-inch screen, but was 1.6-inches thick and had a starting price of $1,499. And it couldn't access Facebook, Hulu, YouTube or Engadget -- because they didn't exist.

Although the larger problems back then stemmed from slower, more limited wireless networks and less compelling web content, it was pretty clear that there was a significant gap between the smartphone and the laptop in terms of price and capabilities.
But the past three years have seen two fundamental changes across the smartphone-laptop continuum. First, the iPhone introduced a Web browser that could faithfully render most Web pages -- or, at least those that don't depend on Flash. The WebKit rendering engine for mobile Safari is also used by Android and Palm devices, while Microsoft and RIM have also taken steps to improving their mobile browsing experiences. Second, while the Asus Eee PC may have been closer to a computing appliance or companion than a PC, the deluge of netbooks from large PC companies such as HP, Acer and Dell that have followed have overwhelmingly run Windows and have been embraced by consumers as small and cheap, if underpowered, laptops.

As a result of smartphones getting smarter, ultraportables getting more portable, and both becoming more affordable, many aspects of the traditional gap between smartphones and laptops have simply disappeared.

As a result of smartphones getting smarter, ultraportables getting more portable, and both becoming more affordable, many aspects of the traditional gap between smartphones and laptops have simply disappeared. In terms of size, few devices that can fit in a pocket offer a more capable, elegant experience than the leading smartphones,. And there are few carrying cases larger than a pocket -- including backpacks, briefcases and even some larger handbags -- into which a netbook won't fit. Tablets offer little over netbooks in terms of enhanced portability.

iPad advocates will argue that it isn't so much what the device does but the "intimate" way in which consumers use it that matters. While smartphones are designed to be used on-the-go and netbooks need to be set down on a surface, tablets fall somewhere in between. They can be used while standing, but are less likely to be carried everywhere because of their size. Interaction sessions on these devices will likely also be longer than they are for smartphones, meaning that in practice they will most likely be used while somewhat immersed and seated. However, their freedom from a large base may make them a better fit for use in settings such as cars, buses, trains and beds -- really anywhere where there's no stabilizing surface. E-reader usage is certainly ideal for these settings.

What emerges then, is a picture of not a broad functional gap, but of fragmented and perhaps even niche opportunities primarily for media consumption. Anyone who has gone for a ride on London's Underground is familiar with the trademark warning to "mind the gap." But in the case of filling a gap between smartphone and laptop that has been largely bridged, the train may have already left the station.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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