What if There is No Tablet Market?

No wait, don't laugh--I'm serious here!

By  |  Monday, April 18, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Last month, a PCWorld contributor named Katherine Noyes wrote a blog post whose very title invited incredulous mockery: “Why Tablets Are Just a Fad.” One hundred percent of the responses I saw said that she was wrong, wrong, wrong (some politely, some less so).

I thought her take was epically myopic myself. Still do. But right now, if you want to make the case that tablets aren’t a fad, there’s one major piece of evidence in your favor: the iPad is a monstrous hit. Beyond that? I’m not sure if there’s a single data point yet that proves that tablets are a robust product category that’s here for the long haul.

Consider the evidence:

  • Microsoft’s first foray into iPad-like tablets was a non-starter, and its next pass may be far in the future;
  • Most of the 32 tablets I rounded up last August either still haven’t shipped or failed to capture anyone’s imagination when they did;
  • Sales of Samsung’s first Galaxy Tab, which looked strong at first, turned out to be merely “smooth,” or something like that;
  • There’s no evidence that Motorola’s Xoom, the only Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablet to ship so far, is selling in vast numbers–in fact, analysts are saying it’s a disappointment;
  • Almost all of the initial reviews of RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook are middling-to-poor, and some question whether some very basic things about the product are fundamentally misguided;
  • HP’s TouchPad looks slick, but it still doesn’t have a ship date and it’s going to have to do far better than any other WebOS product to date to be considered a blockbuster;
  • Now Apple is suing Samsung, in part over the Galaxy Tabs’ similarity to the iPad–which, no matter what the ultimate verdict, is likely to leave everyone else making iPad-like tablets feeling a tad nervous.

Bottom line: Precious few companies other than Apple have shipped iPad-class tablets at all. Of those who have, nobody has shipped one with a level of refinement that’s within a country mile of the iPad. Nobody’s shipped one that’s clearly selling well.

I continue to believe that tablets are going to be a huge deal, and that the iPad will get some formidable competitors–products that people will buy and like in large numbers. I certainly want it to happen. But it hasn’t yet, and it’s not entirely clear when it will. Other software platforms need to mature; they need a critical mass of excellent apps; they need price points at least as appealing as Apple’s; they need easy-to-understand answers to the question “Why would I buy this instead of an iPad?”

At this point, it’s entirely plausible that no Apple competitor is going to have all the pieces in place for success in 2011. 2012 sounds more plausible, but even then, it doesn’t feel like a sure thing. Until Apple has real competition, there’s no “tablet market.”

Katherine Noyes is still wrong: she argues that even the iPad is merely a passing fancy. But it’s up to the rest of the industry to prove that this isn’t a one-product category–and so far, it’s made way less progress than I would have guessed it would have by now.


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32 Comments For This Post

  1. steveymacjr Says:

    Good story…
    Quick question, what do you make of the Nielsen Survey from January that shows only 6% of the 27000 people they surveyed were actually interested in purchasing a tablet, and even fewer than that said they owned one….
    here is a link to the PDF of the survey results: http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/wp-content/up

    and here is a link to the mashable story: http://mashable.com/2011/01/06/smartphones-still-

    wHo knows, maybe Katherine is on to something..

  2. Dave Barnes Says:

    The data in the Nielsen survey are 1 year old.
    Eternity in this market.
    Useless in this market.

  3. steveymacjr Says:

    um, the survey was conducted in sept 2010.. not exactly a year.

  4. Mitch Betts Says:

    My unscientific survey of airline cabins & airports suggests that there's a market for "small electronic devices bigger than a smartphone and smaller than a full laptop," essentially the in-betweener market that Steve Jobs said he went after. So when I travel I see a mix of iPads, e-readers (e.g., Kindles) and netbooks. Maybe different folks have different needs? Heavy readers, for example, go for e-readers these days. People who want a "lite" laptop to get a little work done go for netbooks. So, at the moment, the iPad's competition is "other in-betweener devices," which we tech journalists & analysts put in different "markets" but that regular folks just buy based on individual needs (or got as a gift).

  5. Mike Cerm Says:

    I'm not sure there's a tablet market, either. Just because Apple has sold millions doesn't mean that the sales will continue, or that people will still be using their iPads a year from now. Nintendo sold like 200 million Wii consoles to non-gamers, who played with them for a few months, and haven't touched them since. As much as the iPad may be a novelty right now, I'm not sure that most people won't decide that they don't really need a device that's bigger than a phone, but less useful than a laptop.

  6. Andre Richards Says:

    Can't really compare Apple and Nintendo. Nintendo had a monstrous, iPad-like hit with the Wii and they more or less coasted for 5 years. Apple isn't like that. They're very aggressive compared to Nintendo. Look at how rapidly they iterated through the iPod in its early days, back when they had little to no competition in the mp3 player market. They could have sat back and rode the popularity of the iPod, but they didn't. They threw out the last model and moved on every year and piled on massive feature additions to iTunes and the iTunes Store at the same rate. Apple is already being just as aggressive with the iPad.

  7. Mike Cerm Says:

    I wouldn't say that Apple ever "piled on massive feature additions" to anything. I mean, compare the original iPod to the most recent non-Touch model, and it's basically the same thing with more storage space, a color screen and photo/video support. The original iPod launched, and they pretty much coasted for 5 years, making tiny feature improvements, and then came out with the iPod Touch. They changed the form-factor of the Mini/Nano a bunch, but new features were few and far between.

    The iPad will follow the EXACT same product cycle. Each year there'll be a new one, and it will have one new feature (this year was cameras), small performance improvements, but nothing major. In another 2-3 years, they'll release a 7" iPad Mini. Pretty predictable stuff.

    My point is that, like the Wii was a console for non-gamers, I hear a lot about how the iPad is a computer for the every-man. The people who are befuddled by how confusing Windows has become, and don't want to worry about keeping their antivirus up-to-date… But, if it's 2011 and you still don't know how to use a computer, chances are it's because you just have no interest in technology at all, and you'd rather be reading a book. You don't need a device that will let you check your email on the toilet, because you probably never get email anyway.

  8. Andre Richards Says:

    "The original iPod launched, and they pretty much coasted for 5 years, making tiny feature improvements"

    I couldn't disagree more. They not only added features rapidly to both iTunes and the iTunes Store, but they split the entire iPod line into separate products (iPod Mini, iPod Shuffle, etc.) In fact, they were were iterating through versions of the iPod so rapidly, that they tossed the iPod Mini to the side of the road at the height of its popularity and replaced it with the fully re-designed iPod Nano–something every pundit out there thought was sheer insanity. I think you need to go back and look a little more carefully at how quickly they moved in those first 5 years. It's nothing like what we've seen out of Nintendo in the last 5 years.

    "the iPad is a computer for the every-man"

    For a power user, it's a great way to get Internet and email access quickly and cleanly in a decent sized screen. Instant-on access with no logging in. Nothing out there fills that void, and until you have it, you don't realize how useful it is. I think the sales figures are showing that it's not just an "every man" PC, and anecdotally, the only people I know who own them are techies. I use the built-in VPN to connect to my employers network from home and admin servers. That's not an "every man" PC. There's more to the iPad than people assume.

  9. Mike Cerm Says:

    Your arguing against your own point. If the only people you know who own iPads are techies, then it's a niche product, and sales will stall because there just aren't that many techies out there.

    Anecdotally, the only people I know who have iPads are non-techie, mass-market consumer type people, and none of them really use their iPad that much. On a daily basis, they use their phones a lot, and they use desktop/laptop PC's while they're at work. At home, they use their phones, or their work-issued laptops to VPN and do work. They don't really have any use for a limited-use, recreational device like an iPad. They don't find staring at a screen to be a worthwhile recreational activity.

  10. jack tors Says:

    My older grandpa & grandma never used to use computers and never used Internet but iPad changed that. They just sent me an email one day out of the blue. I was shocked. They used an iPad and now use it all the time.

    My younger sister who's 10 also uses an iPad all the time.

    Just a fad? Hah! I don't think so.

  11. DanielC Says:

    The very old and the very young don't usually do any serious work. Is there really a sustainable market for a $500+ device that is used primarily for sending *short* emails, watching movies and playing simple games? Your two tidbits don't really prove anything, silly.

    Apple's closed ecosystem and its decision to create a useful, but highly limited device ultimately dampens the long-term success of the ipad. That doesn't even begin to mention Apple's extortion of App developers (i.e. attempting to steal 30% of all revenues of in-app purchases)

  12. Fanfoot Says:

    Jeez dude, way to troll. Get back in your hole.

    You understand that most computers are sold for MORE money than an iPad costs right?

  13. NameIsTooLong Says:

    Don't we already have an answer to that? AAPL is cranking out as much as they can and can't satisfy demand. iPad 2's demand has even more thrust than iPad 1 did. There is no hint of slackening demand.

    "Serious work" isn't a requirement for this market. Many people using PCs don't do serious work, either (look at all those use surveys that find people merely surfing the 'net, sending a few emails and playing an occasional game).

    The qualification that counts is that they have "computing needs" or "wants" (either one is fine) that need fulfilling — whether that is coding an app, laying out next Q's performance targets, reading an ebook, surfing celebrity sites, watching a Mexican soap opera, or playing some goofy game about pissed off birds.

    "Open" v "closed" is a meaningless classification only pushed by PC tech Luddites. Yes — they are aging and the computing world is changing away from anything they are comfortable with, they're losing relevance and hate it — they also stand a good chance of losing their jobs if they can't keep up…

    30% isn't extortion. Most content providers get fractions less from legacy distribution models (I was in the industry and worked on and wrote some of those contracts — I know the business terms used). The App Store takes a lot of distribution, administrative, marketing and management problems out of their hands, and gives them a higher cut of proceeds.

  14. Fanfoot Says:

    Obviously the iPad is a monster hit. And yes, I love mine and think its a perfect computer for many people, including kids and grandparents. But at the same time I still don't use it THAT MUCH, preferring a keyboard for making comments like this. And I do wonder about whether it will turn out after the fact to have been a fad. I don't think that's what's going to happen, but its still a possibility.

  15. Avro Says:

    There's no Tablet market in the sense that there is no MP3 market. Apple owns both. It's not so much the case that Apple is brilliant as the competition is inept and incompetent, especially Microsoft.

  16. The_Heraclitus Says:

    I guess the question could be, will tablets have the same market share as home laptops? The answer: Not anytime soon.

  17. Avro Says:

    I disagree, Tablets could kill the laptop market and very quickly.

  18. David Says:

    Agreed. For what most people do on a laptop, a tablet is, IMO, a better machine. Personally, I've never liked laptops. They are devices to be tolerated. Not as powerful as a desktop, not nearly light enough to be truly portable.

  19. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Not a chance. Let's meet back here in a year. LOL!

  20. David Says:

    I agree with you. These guys who talk about "serious" work are usually just gadget consumers. I've yet to find one who actually is as hardcore as they think they are.

  21. Dave Says:

    I don't think you mean no market. i think you mean no "competitive" market. There is still a market when there is a monopoly, just not a competitive one.

    Remember this was the EXACT same argument people made when Android phones came out and didn't sell that well. We all know how that turned out.

    Tablets will never be as much of a hit as smartphones because they are just not portable enough, but there are many people for whom the smart phone screen is too small for them to use, but don't want to lug a laptop around–even a netbook.

  22. Avro Says:

    Android got a lot of attention due to the AT&T lockin of the iPhone in the US. In Europe Android still is playing 2nd fiddle to the iPhone. Don't expect a major success with Android Tablets. They are an equivalent of the MP3 competition to the iPod.

  23. Sean Captain Says:

    I see the iPad as essentially the next iPod – a single product that owns and entire product category – but maybe even more so than the iPad owned MP3 players, since the iPad was the first out the gate.

    The iPod was a rather late arrival – and not even the first hard drive-based. So there was some loyalty to other brands (Creative, iRiver). Not the case with the iPad.

    In essence, why would you buy any other tablet? And note, I am not a fanboy. It's just how I see it.

  24. NameIsTooLong Says:

    I've got that sense that is the case, too.

    in 2003 I worked in a company making web-based music stores, licensing music catalogs, etc. The iPod was late, but iTunes felt even later to the dance. We were working with the major labels, and it was obvious they had no answer for anything, or clue what to do next. And these were very smart people.

    They should have lead the market and built something — it was obvious years before where tech was going to take music playing and distribution. That a H/W & S/W manufacturer stepped in and had to do it years after it was technically feasible speaks to how late AAPL was, and how much the industry failed as natural owners of that space.

  25. drew Says:

    So many of you seem to think the market is fixed at a set number, and any sales in one must be at the expense of another. The reality is there is more than enough in a growing market for all.

    The iPad (I have two) fills a need; will it kill laptops? No, but is has offered an alternative to a laptop or netbook. I use the iPad to consume information, I use my netbook to create (typing is much eaiser for me on the netbook). The iPad has not replaced by desktop or my netbook, but has filled a new role. It is great when travelling around (the GPS with the 3G). and looking stuff up.

  26. John Stove Says:

    Good post Harry. I agree with Dave though that people don't need to, and probably aren't, choosing between tablets or laptops. It makes sense to have both. Tablets to me are more for only entertainment, whereas laptops are a lot more versatile and better for actually doing work, but I wouldn't carry my laptop around everywhere I take a tablet. They both fill a different need and aren't directly competing.

    I also agree that the market isn't as big as it was hyped up to be. The main reason to buy a tablet besides an iPad is for the price or because you would prefer the Android OS. Right now I don't think the price difference is enough to persuade people away from a brand they already trust and use, and the average consumer probably doesn't care enough to buy a tablet just because it has Android and isn't made by Apple.

  27. myoung Says:

    Do any of you (me, included) have the ability to predict the future?
    I don't say none of the commenters are right, or wrong; we just don't know and can only guess.
    I'm 78 and I'm damned busy, but that's mere anecdotal evidence, scientifically and logically unimportant as a predictor.
    I don't have an iPad and have no need or intention to buy one. I do have a Kindle. I would not predict that, therefore, Kindles are bound to ousell iPads, even though everyone eventually gets old (except for those who die early).

  28. Ray Soneira Says:

    I have 2 laptops, 2 smartphones and 1 netbook but I really prefer to use my iPad for reading Email and keeping up with the large number of websites that I follow. It's way more efficient and convenient than anything else for these time intensive tasks. My smartphones are great when I'm mobile and walking around and my laptops, netbook and pcs are great for heavy duty work but the iPad takes care of everything in between – that's as big as a barn and definitely not a niche or fad.

  29. godismyshadow Says:

    A computer is a system in a box. Tablets are OK while traveling, but for serious stuff you want a real keyboard with mouse. The next big thing is the notebook with detachable keyboard. It's a notebook computer, but it morphs into a tablet when you detach the keyboard.

  30. SkiddMarx Says:

    Just substitute Wii/Wiimote for Tablet – everyone just had to have one when it came out, even people who never owned a game console before, and the luster has worn off, and many are just collecting dust. The traditional controller would still appear to rule. The 'Move' appears to be going nowhere and I'll bet the Kinnect will suffer the same fate as the Wiimote. My money's on the small form-factor laptop with extended battery life.

  31. iPads or Android Says:

    I prefer the iPad over alternatives because of the ease of use and overall construction and quality that Apple produces.

  32. Andre Richards Says:

    You people who think the iPad is a fad are in for a rude awakening. Fads come and go in a matter of months, usually 6 months at most. And with fads, the popularity peaks early and rapidly trends downward. The iPad is going in exactly the other direction, repeating the same trajectory Apple had with the iPhone and the iPod. How do you figure it's a fad?