“There really isn’t much of a “tablet” market”

Posted on January 1, 2011

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On December 31 Marco Arment gave his opinion on the tablet market as he sees it. The bottom line as I read it: There is not much of a tablet market. The devices have no clear use case and except for Apple – who delivered a good and solid product with the iPad – what you can find on the market now is overpriced and close to useless crap.

I have been doing some scouting around with tablets and Android, using the Archos and my smartphones as a starting point and recently checking out Flash 10.1 on my Archos 32. And although I partially agree with many statements made by Marco, I think the article does not show you the entire image of what we can expect.

Why tablets are not there yet

  1. High cost, inferior specifications – Tablet computers cost as much and even more as Netbooks and have less to offer in respects of: software, storage and horsepower.
  2. Immature and inferior market for applications – The alternatives for Office applications, including Google Docs simply are not up to the job. They lack functionalities (like simple tasks as placing an image in a document)
  3. Close to useless as an e-reader– Try and read a eBook on a tablet. Then go to a dedicated reader like the ones by Sony or Amazon. Then go back to the LCD screens. It just does not do it (for me, anyway)
  4. Not quite the thing to do multi-media on – Why watch a movie on a tablet when you have a fixed screen? Unless you are desperate, like being stuck in an airport for another four hours or in so much need of escape as everything else around you sucks ass.
  5. Not capable to connect to peripheral devices – Try and attach a printer, hard drive, mouse or camera to your tablet. Especially when Android. First of all: where do you plug these fuckers in? Then: where do you find the drivers? Especially for printers and scanners. Current Android tablets provide either a proprietary plug or a micro-USB slave port that (if you are lucky in the case of the Archos) can be used as a USB Host
  6. Updates of the OS are strongly tied to the hardware – Each release of Android has to be assambled specifically for the hardware it will be running on. Unlike Windows Android does not come with a abundance of hardware drivers you can either install out of the box or after download. If your hardware is not actively supported by the manufacturer, you are fucked.

Now if I would only go this far, I would proclaim the decline and fall of the “tablet bubble pony that everyone wanted to have a ride on” to start in 2011 and tablets to be remembered as just another sadly failed concept in 2012.

What I expect to happen in the next 2 years

Watch this video from Charbax, talking with the guys from Rockchip demonstrating some new chipsets. There is a lot of nerd-talk about processors in the video, but it will give you a hint of what to expect on RISC / ARM based hardware in the next year. Bottom line: Rockchip is right on top of Android and Android devices aimed at making everything run faster and smoother including touch, 3D, running Android and adding more processing power to their systems.

The following items state what I think and feel is happening right now and what I think will come to happen in 2011 and 2012. As my focus is Android and – to a lesser extend – Intel based tablets, I leave speculation over Apple products to others:

  1. An increase in GPU power – When you follow the tablet market via ARMdevices or the likes, more and more of the new and emerging tablets and recent smart phones support 3D naively, allowing game developers to make more immersive games for on the go and reducing the work-load and energy use on the system when playing movies.
  2. More Intel-based Tablets – Right now Android and ARM RISC-based processors dominate the market as they kind of emerged from the telephone- and electronic photo frame market. Intel is catching up with their Atom series and no doubt we will find more tablets running Intel Atom 1.6 and 2 GHz processors in the next years.
  3. More games for the tablet-market – with the accelerometer, touch and multi-touch capabilities and Android and vendor specific markets the current and new tablets will form a strong competition for the handheld game devices.
  4. New stuff due to Flash on the Android platform – However cursed Flash might be for whatever reasons, (justified and based on bullshit) it is one of the leading platforms for stable visually rich publications and very suited for tablet applications. I have tested Flash briefly the past week – with a release for Android from about June 2010 – on my Archos 32 and was pleased with the performance. Like games, Flash on tablets open an entire new world of options for interactive media and interactive content on that platform. And unlike Java, Flash is created and has evolved for that specific purpose.
  5. Pen-input – Asus is one of the first to introduce a pen-tablet using a pressure-sensitive surface with their AE800. We have seen similar things on the iRex e-readers from the Netherlands, using the Wacom technology. And using a pen on your current resistive or capacitive screen does half the trick, but to have a dedicated tablet with pressure sensitive input, full color screens and less latency doing this trick is a different story.
  6. More pixels per square inch – Right now most tablets have about the same pixel per inch resolution as laptop screens. But 800 x 400 pixels on 7 inch and 1024 x 600 pixels on 10 inch tablet screens are not enough. See tablets like using print work. You hold them closer to your face and you simply do not want to see the pixels when you read or watch the content.
  7. Dual core, more CPU performance – Right now dual core ARM processors for mobile devices are the silent buzz on the web.  It will not take much time (let’s say one year) before we will see this in action
  8. More RAM, more on-board storage – Current “high end” models enter the market with about 8 to 16 GB to spare for applications and data. Models like the Archos 9 come with a 160 GB harddrive on board.
  9. More and better productivity software – The companies releasing office-compatible software for the Android platform are the early adapters. They took a risk. The Android Market could have failed gloriously as the so and so many whim of Google to be aborted soon after (think Google Wave as one of the examples). The more devices we will see appear using Android on a bigger real estate (1024 x 600 and larger) the more rewarding it will be to develop “serious” software for it. And looking at business software, even by releasing a version that is very basic – but does all the things you need really good with a best-of-breed approach – will be a great win(ner) in the next 12 months.
  10. More use “on the workfloor” – any job that includes on the fly data access will be benefited by using tablets. Think of salespeople in your local “Best Buy” or “Media World” tapping through context-related data to help you find the product that matches your specific needs – based on facts instead of their personal opinion. Think of your waiter inserting your order and beaming it directly to the “backoffice” which will prepare and deliver it a few minutes later to your table. Something we see in Amsterdam since the 2000nds using the good old PDAs in cafe’s in Amsterdam.
  11. More interaction-options for Tablet users over local WiFi – With the ever increasing amount of users carrying either a high end smartphone or a tablet with them, local stores and venues can and will open their offerings to the public as a “Do It Yourself” solution over their local WiFi.
  12. Easier ways to mount your tablet to network drives – android 2.1 on the Archos can connect to SMB shares, allowing you to access harddrives of computers on your (home) network. You still need to be quite the nerd to set this up on a Mac or PC due to the access rights and login procedures that are far from “plug and play”.

Tablets and e-Books

I do not know how e-reading will evolve on tablets. I have reached the point where it no longer makes sense to me to buy paper books, due to the qualities of the Sony e-Reader I bought earlier in 2010. My biggest beef with e-reading and tablets is – as stated – the display. Two things currently happen to me:

  1. “Color bleeding” and “lines” – black on white is not really black and white on an LCD / LED screen. It is black, a lot of colors on the edges of characters and then a white that is too bright and not equalized. Move your eyes to about 15 cm off your screen and you will see exactly what I mean.
  2. Eye strain – the screen is too bright.

It might be that screens will at a certain point move towards a new solution that will work like paper (and is not e-paper, or is a new generation of low-latency e-paper).

Right now reading e-books on tablets is only an option for me when I have no other option left.

My take on price and performance

  1. A tablet is not a computer or Netbook – The main differences are the limitations on weight, thickness, cooling and energy consumption. To reach an optimal form factor (thin and light) and usability (performance and hours of use before battery is dead) and keep the price reasonable, you will always settle with less. Tablets run on low power CPUs and – in most cases – are produced to operate without an active cooling system. The processor and the system will always “underperform” due to this.
  2. 300 euro is a good price for a 10 inch Tablet “Netbook replacement”, 400 euro and more is too much – I have contemplated to buy the Intel Atom based Archos 9 for exploration purposes. In may 2010 it was priced a sturdy 450 euro at the Media Market in the Netherlands. That is 100 euro too much, considered the processor is a Atom running on 1.2 Ghz and with only 1 GB of internal memory. Also considering the use cases are limited for a tablet (due to the screen real estate and performance) and that I can buy a laptop or netbook for that price that easily outperforms such a tablet.
  3. High performance Tablet computers do not make sense yet – For the mass market that is. We do not have enough use cases yet where the Tablet is more handy than a laptop. No doubt geeks like me and the early adapters who simply buy anything that is cutting edge and within their field of deep interest will walk around with those. But that is not the target audience I write about here.

Why tablets will be offering less for more money for a while

  1. Maturity and emerging market – Unlike Netbooks, which use outdated hardware and thus can be cheap, tablet computers (and hand helds / smart phones) the Tablet market is new and emerging. Which means that each new tablet was preceeded with a lot of investment in R&D to make it faster, the hardware more compact more solid and more lightweight.
  2. Heat and low power consumption – As discussed before, tablets are aimed to have low power consumption and low heat dissipation. This comes with a price. In our case – as discussed – lower performance than Netbooks, laptops or desktops.

Where tablets will be the preferred choice

  1. As a replacement for Netbooks for regular travelers – when you travel a lot, Netbooks can be a burden due to the keyboard. You do not always have the space to type, nor the need when checking your online status and feeds. Tablets are quite handy when it comes to “on demand use” due to the lack of the keyboard-part. Using a compact Bluetooth keyboard like the Microsoft Arc will help overcome the limitations of typing on a touch screen.
  2. For Point of Sales activities – To offer tailor made advice to customers or beam orders of food or beverages to the “backoffice”
  3. For sales people in the field – As a replacement for both paper booklets and powerpoints on laptops.
  4. For home use – To do the stuff you want to do somewhere else in your house, using your (secured) shared folders for direct access to work you store on your desktop or network drive (NAS).
  5. When the price is right – Archos manages to offer decent tablets in a range of 100 to 350 euro.

Preconditions

As stated before and summarizing here:

  1. Office-applications catering all the basic needs – Word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, exchangeable with MS Office
  2. 1 GB of RAM and more – to allow you to do work, instead of suffer due to memory
  3. A screen resolution of 1300 x 800 and more – As lower resolutions do not make any sense for browsing and working
  4. A battery life of at least 7 hours “always on” on regular use – As tablets are per definition for portable use
  5. Offering a full-blown set of hardware drivers – for scanners and printers and other hardware that is really missed in times when you need it
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