With apologies to Alfred Lord Tenneyson
Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Shops Rode the six hundred. "Forward the Tablet Brigade! Charge for the consumers!" he said. Into the valley of Shops Rode the six hundred.
Let’s talk about tablets.
iPad, the first financially successful tablet
Tablet computing saw a lot of fascinating failures, before Apple copied the living daylights out of everyone, and introduced the iPad. In fact it’s hard to look at the series of tablets that failed, without wondering if some of the designers may have been Darwin Award nominees, looking for a job to pay the bills.
Look at the original iPad. There wasn’t one single NEW concept involved. Note the word NEW. All Apple did was avoid making stupid mistakes. What mistakes?
- Trying to charge over $1000.00 per unit.
- Building in limitations so it wouldn’t cannibalize their laptop market share.
- Over-engineering the device, forcing costs upwards.
- Attempting to squeeze a complete desktop OS into it.
- Deciding that people would prefer to use a stylus instead of finger input.
- Deciding that it needed a keyboard.
Apple’s decision to sell the base iPad for $499.00 shocked a lot of people, but matched my estimate of its price. The price was high enough that Apple would make a profit, assuming that a certain number of units were sold, and both Apple’s marketing, plus the media reports ensured that Apple sold enough iPads to make that profit.
If Apple had have introduced the iPad at $1000.00, there might never have been enough take up on the device to ever make it profitable. A post release price drop, which often happens with new devices, would have reminded everyone of Apple’s actions after the release of the original iPhone. So Apple priced aggressively, and blow wide open a new market.
While there were already some tablet devices on the market at the time of the iPad release, the iPad was far more successful than anything before, and for several years after. Note however that the iPad was Apple’s fourth tablet. The Newton, iPhone, and iPod Touch had given Apple a lot of experience in what worked in the market.
Any time a company establishes a successful market, competition arises. Competition is good for consumers. Manufacturers don’t like competition. They’d rather just rake in the cash.
But competition is the force that drives them to produce better and less expensive products. Competition in the tablet market has reached endemic levels. There are units using several different processor architectures, a range of operating systems, and in a variety of sizes. An Indian/Canadian company has now developed a tablet that will sell to University students in India for $20.00, after a government subsidy. Even with shipping costs the device could probably be sold in North America for $60.00 per unit, at a tidy profit.
Some manufacturers are trying to take advantage of the tablet wave, by producing laptops with detachable keyboard. Ultrabook notebook/tablet hybrids, usually running the full version of Windows (Linux of course could be installed), appear to have none of the advantages of either a laptop or a tablet.
Who’ll be the winner?
Damned good question. Since my Magic 8 Ball is on the fritz, you’ll have to put up with my guesses.
You can divide the market up into two major sections, and several subsections.
Major Section 1: X86/AMD64 Processors
Mostly these come with Windows 8 pre-installed, and they tend to be fairly expensive. There are three problems with the X86/AMD64 systems, battery life, build quality, and weight. Some of them are actually Intel Ultrabooks with detachable keyboards, and you don’t really need a keyboard on a tablet. At the same time the business market may keep the architecture alive. May. I haven’t seen any of these devices using Linux, but it should be possible to install it.
Major Section 2: ARM Processors
This includes the market leading (at present) iPad, and the rising Android OS systems, and has several sub-sections.
Subsection 1: Full Size ARM – 10″ Range Tablet
Including the original iPad, this form factor has been the most popular. So far. Steve Jobs claimed this was the optimum size, now that Apple has release a 7″ iPad, we may see a sea change in popularity.
Subsection 2: Mid Size ARM – 7″ Range Tablet
Like the Blackberry Playbook, the Amazon Kindle Fire, and the Apple iPad, the 7″ tablet offers some significant advantages over the 10″ tablet, and some significant disadvantages. Disadvantages are smaller screen, smaller typing area for the on-screen keyboard. Advantages are smaller screen, lighter weight, and it fits in a business suit pocket.
Subsection 3: Small Size ARM – 5″ Range Tablet
Ah, this section is fun. Archos has been making tablets in this range for a long time. Even longer I believe than Apple. Yes, the iPod Touch is a 5″ Range Tablet.
Subsection A: IOS Devices (Apple)
Apple is the current king of the hill. IOS devices generally provide an excellent user experience, are well built and designed, and the software ecosystem is huge. Apple devices tend to be among the most expensive tablets, but offer a lot of value. They are especially popular with Artists and Musicians.
Subsection B: Android Devices (Google)
Android devices come in all price ranges. There is a huge software ecosystem, and the operating system is solid. Hardware quality, and software-hardware integration can vary from device to device. Also the Kindle Fire is reported to come with an antique version of the OS, is not easily upgradeable, and and without the upgrade it scrolls badly. Many companies use Google’s Android OS. One warning – make sure that the tablet you buy has the newest possible version of Android, some OEMS haven’t designed in an upgrade path.
Subsection C: Windows RT Devices (Microsoft, Microsoft partners)
Possible the most expensive ARM devices, the Microsoft Surface tablet has some rather odd design choices. The only tablet you can get without a keyboard is the least expensive. Since no other ARM tablet manufacturer includes a keyboard with their devices, either Microsoft is super-smart, and saw something no one else saw, or they’ve messed up big time. These are possibly the most expensive ARM devices. Remove the keyboard (most users never buy one for their iPad), and the price would be close to that of the iPad. But… Maybe Microsoft’s Windows RT really does require a keyboard.
Subsection D: Other operating systems
Rim’s Blackberry OS is probably more popular than Microsoft Windows RT on tablets, but Microsoft is new to the tablet market. Other tablets have used Meego/Maemo, Symbian, WebOS, with Ubuntu and Sugar coming out with tablet operating systems shortly. With the wide availability of Unix based advanced kernels, it seems likely that most tablets will be Unix powered (Apple’s IOS is a BSD Unix varient).
So who’s the winner? Most probably Android devices on ARM. While iPads are nice, they are just too expensive for the average family. Microsoft’s devices are also too expensive, with the OS reportedly using 8 GB, which means you only have half of the storage you think.
In Canada, we have a wide range of Android devices available for less than $100.00. True, anything that cheap is probably limited, but it is still going to put a lot of pressure on Apple and Microsoft. This is the age of “Good Enough Computing” where people are extending the life span of their computers as much as they can. I have a couple of working machines that first ran Windows 98 (they now run Linux), and a G3 iMac (which is going to get Linux as soon as I buy some more RAM for it).
My prediction is:
Android for the Win!
Wednesday November 14, 2012