Keep taking the tablets...
Only two years have passed since the launch of Apple’s iPad in 2010, a point in computing history
that marks the wider acceptance of tablet computing. People had been primed to be familiar with
touch computing by using the iPhone which was launched in 2007. Both these devices have had
incredibly fast adoption rates. Look at the figures on the area chart on the left above: this uses
data from Mary Meeker that shows the first eight quarters of cumulative units shipped. The iPod is
the green area, the iPhone is the pink/red area. You can see that after eight quarters the iPhone
had shipped nearly 24 million units, but in a similar timeframe the iPad had shipped over 66 million
units. This has been the fastest adoption of any electronic device so far.
Tablet usage is clearly set to continue to grow as more and tablets are designed and manufactured
and better software for them is developed. This week Microsoft publicly showed off the prototype
of their Surface tablet computer for the first time. Both Google and Microsoft have had to get into
the low margin computer hardware business to promote the digital lock-in that these products
have to their respective cloud-based services. They have had to respond to the lead in this area
already established by Apple. In the battle of the eco-systems Apple is the clear winner to date, far
ahead of Google, Amazon and Microsoft who have also invested heavily in cloud services.
Blackberry and other smaller players have already lost out and are now unlikely to have the
resources to continue to compete in this area. Look at the bar chart on the right hand side; this
demonstrates just how dominant the iPad is in the United States at the moment. I could have used
questionnaire-derived data for this chart but I find it is always better to use behavioural data if it is
available. This behavioural dataset comes from the Chitika ad network which serves advertising on
over 100,000 websites. For six days Chitika served hundreds of millions of ads with code which
detected the user agent of the computer devices being used. The data in the bar chart has then
been ranked in comparison to every 100 iPad visitors. Chitika found that Apple iPads made up no
fewer than 91.07% of all the tablets being used. Lagging far, far behind in the tablet race the
Samsung Galaxy Tablet leads the field with 1.77% of all tablet traffic per 100 iPads while Amazon’s
Kindle Fire comes in at a mere 0.71%. There is no doubt that in terms of the tablets currently being
used in the United States Apple’s iPad is the dominant device, but it has declined slightly compared
with the previous month.
You may not remember but Microsoft tried to market a comparatively heavy Windows Tablet PC
running Windows XP in 2001. You can see pictures of Microsoft’s tablet product development here.
Compare this specification to the recently launched Google Nexus 7 tablet shown on the slide
which weighs in at a lean 340 grams and costs just $199. This perfectly illustrates the extraordinary
weight and cost reduction there has been in tablet computing in the last 12 years. Not only are the
micro-processors neater, faster and cooler running, but they are accompanied by smaller and
cheaper flash memory meaning there is no need for bulky hard drives. (Although, of course, disk
drives are also now much smaller and lighter). Combine these advantages with manufacturing
developments in producing light-weight, toughened glass and smaller, high-performing batteries,
and the result is tablets like the iPad 3 and the Nexus 7. It’s intriguing to note that Google, unlike
Apple, is aggressively trying to achieve a good specification at the lowest possible price. You can
read the story here about how the design of the Nexus 7 came together very quickly.
Timing is everything in business and Microsoft’s early tablet attempt was just too early. Bill Gates,
in a recent interview available here, said that he doesn’t think a tablet is an ideal device for
education. Gates considers that a keyboard is absolutely necessary and that a low-cost laptop
makes a better choice than a tablet for this task. That may or may not be the case in education but
what I want from a tablet computer like, I suspect, a lot of people is really good hand writing
recognition, using a stylus, not my finger. You can see the demand for this functionality is very high
by sales of the Samsung Note. Most people want to spend as little time on a keyboard as possible
but they do have a speedy and natural style of note-taking. Many problems would be solved if
those hand-written notes could be efficiently converted to text for merging into documents. In a
sense Microsoft has already produced the best solution for me: They have excellent handwriting
recognition built into Windows 8 that will work with Microsoft Office documents, as well as their
OneNote application which integrates text and diagrams complete with searchable text. All of
these running on an Intel-based Microsoft Surface would fit my mobile computing needs. They will
work well with physical and virtual keyboards, and stylus handwriting recognition, all built into the
operating system to work together seamlessly. Unfortunately, at the moment, this combination is
just too expensive.
You may not realise when you look at the history of pen computing that the pen, or stylus, pre-
dates the mouse as an input device for a computer. For some people the ultimate dream, in fact
the Holy Grail, of computing was to be able to hand write and draw on a device. Many creative
companies, and millions of dollars, were based on that dream. Like dreams, those companies
disappeared although some, like Go Corporation, live on in the code used in Microsoft’s products
today. Watch this video that launched their PenPoint operating system in 1991. I repeat: timing is
everything in business. Apple’s entry into Tablet computing was perfectly timed just when the
hardware and software capability, minus the weight problems, came into existence. Microsoft was
just too early, so their product was too heavy and expensive. I have an uneasy feeling that they are
about to repeat their mistake, not on the weight of the product this time, but on the price. I don’t
think Microsoft will subsidise the real costs of the hardware and software enough to be able to
compete with the low cost of Android tablet devices like Google’s Nexus 7. In any event we will
know in September/October when the first version of the Microsoft Surface is likely to be released.
In the meantime for those people for whom money is less important than the brand, the Apple
iPad is still the tablet of choice.
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