Monday, February 28, 2011

2011: The Year of the Tablet

This post is kind of two weeks overdue, but life's been busy and it's been hard to find time to finish this post. Better late than never though!

Do you hear that sound? Listen closer - it's the beating of the drums of war. It's coming! I used to think it was all hype, but it really is brewing. Apple once again has set the stage for a new product category through the iPad, and it's a market that it looks like they don't quite have completely cornered. There's plenty of room for competitors to edge their way in, of which there are three: the Blackberry Playbook, the rabble of Android tablets, and the Palm TouchPad. Surprisingly enough, they're all pretty worthy competitors.

Over 14 million iPads were sold last year, and given that that's all early adopters there's clearly much more under the surface there, so the market has plenty of room for anyone who can differentiate from the iPad and/or beat the hefty price tag. Personally, I have no desire to get a tablet, but when I think about it I can easily see the appeal for everyone else. Every computer breakthrough in the past 30 years has seemed to involve portability - convenience is key to people. Gone are the days of trying to type on a keyboard in a cramped airplane seat - here are the days of Kindles and iPads and iPhones when you're on-the-go. It never ceases to amaze me how much sex appeal matters in gadgetry. While many people are content with what they have, there's a large contingent who will drop what they have in a hot minute for something that's more fun to play with or easier to use even if they don't actually need to upgrade. Back to tablets versus computers though - I'm fairly tech savvy and yet I really only use my home computer for a few things: browsing the web for news and information, e-mail, listening to music, storing pictures, writing speeches, and playing games with friends. When you boil down your computer to a set of items like that and consider that you can get all that and more in a smaller form factor for less money, why wouldn't you want a tablet instead? I mean the hardcore PC games will stay on PCs, but we're seeing pretty compelling stuff on mobile devices now. And granted, typing is much easier on a physical keyboard, but you can accessorize your tablet if you're like me and really hate typing on a touch screen. These are all pretty small arguments compared to the general interest that has grown around tablets and the place they can fill in our lives if we chuck our desktop or laptop computers.

Let's start with the little guy: the HP TouchPad. I'm an outspoken fan of webOS and it's only getting better in version 2.0. The TouchPad was announced earlier this month, but you can see a more recent hands-on video here. It's starting off with a steep disadvantage of not coming out until the summer, but it has a sexy 1.2 GHz Snapdragon processor, a 9.7" display, and a front-facing camera. Anything that you had on the Pre is there also (Synergy, the multitasking interface, etc.), minus the gesture area (since you'll be alternating between landscape and portrait orientations a lot). Aside from the front facing camera, what sets it apart from the competition is its tight integration with the Pre 3. Notifications and texts can be shared and I'm sure a lot more. I think this is pretty much the last hurrah for webOS - if this launch fails then it's all over. I think that given how small HP's mindshare is for mobile device owners, the chips are definitely stacked against them. With an inventive marketing campaign and competitive pricing, I think it definitely stands a chance. They also need to really reach out to the developer community and get aggressive about upping the ante on the app store. There's some great stuff out there, but it's a far cry from what Android and the iPad have.

The Blackberry Playbook is set to ship in the next 1-2 months and has gotten a lot of good press. I'd consider a media darling, in fact, because the tech press seems to be really excited about it. The only pricing I've seen so far is under $500 for the 4G model, which is indeed quite competitive (there are a few different models with different connectivity options though). It's also pretty beefy under the hood with a dual core 1 GHz ARM processor - lending itself quite well to its marketing as being very much a multitasking computer. They even have demos where they look at pictures, play HD video, and listen to music all at once (although it appears that this is an optional feature as you can configure it to only keep focus on one item at a time if you'd like). Another strength is the extremely high clarity of 170 pixels per inch (even sharper than the iPad). Despite how fast and shiny the PlayBook is though, I think it's going to have serious problems standing up to the competition because Blackberry's brand is not near what it used to be even 3 years ago and the app store is going to be worlds behind every other tablet coming out this year. With competitive pricing and strong incentives to developers, I think they may be in the running, but their uphill battle could be even steeper than HP's. While it's cool that they're trying to be appealing to the enterprise with their Torch integration, I don't know if that's going to be enough for them to build significant market share around it. Let's face it, a tablet is usually not for work, it's for play.

There's a lot of Android tablets coming out soon so I won't go into hardware details, but Honeycomb is a pretty slick OS. It just oozes the kind of class that we've come to expect from Android over the years. The launcher is in essence what you normally see from Android phones but just scaled up a bit for a tablet (like a GMail widget that keeps up with live e-mail) and with a spoonful of sugar on top as the transitions are cleaner and a way to zoom out and get an eXpose-like view of things (as pictured above). A few more noteworthy items: Google Maps looks a lot more like Google Earth now that you can see 3-D models in it, the browser appears to be just a tablety version of Chrome, and the GMail UI weaves pretty well with what you've come to know and love in your browser. I think the odds that Android tablets won't survive the year are slim to nil. Aside from the momentum Android has and the number of tablets that will be out there this year running Android, it has an extremely competitive app store. The only things holding it back are pricing (the Motorola Xoom is $800 - I hope others don't follow suit) and the risk of over-saturating the market with selection.

There's not much I can say about the iPad that you don't already know, except for the fact that there's almost certainly a new iPad coming out this summer that hasn't been announced yet. Hence, the iPad could either strengthen its lead or lose a decent amount of market share to the competition. Regardless of what happens, it'll definitely still be in this game after this year - the question is really whether their majority share of the market will be staggering or just a simple one. They've got excellent market share, an enormous app store, and a leg up on the competition in having had a year head start to iron out the kinks for the 2nd generation. Their biggest downfalls are pricing, weight, the lack of multitasking, and the standard fact that the iPad plays in a somewhat walled garden since the app store is more heavily controlled than any of the others are/will be. Even with all these issues, it's still the iPad. The brand name is the trump card, even in the face of all the cool stuff the other guys have to offer (not to say that the iPad is a bad device by any means, but the competitors are no less slick).

We have four tablet OSes entering this year and I predict only three will survive, possibly even only two. By "survive" I mean by a reasonableness standard - none of these guys will quickly give up the battle, but anyone who can't get their foothold in this year firmly into the market is done for. I expect for it to be a very interesting year for tablets, and I look forward to watching from the sideline as I clutch my 16.3" Asus laptop in the face of this anti-keyboard revolution.