On iPads, tablets and Microsoft’s vacant bet in the non-post-PC world
It was interesting to read tonight that Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, isn’t sure whether there is a long term future for tablets such as the iPad.
“I don’t know whether the big screen tablet pad category is going to remain with us or not,” is what he specifically said.
I find the tablet space incredibly fascinating which is why I uncharacteristically rushed out and bought an Apple iPad on the day they launched last year. Being the first of its kind on the market, as a product manager and technologist I needed to understand how this new device genre would fit into our personal and business lives.
It was interesting to learn this weekend that my parents and brother (who all live together back in our family home in London) have kitted themselves out with iPad 2.
A year later and sans-iPad 2, while I remain interested in the space I do feel it is incredibly over-hyped. Everything, for me, screams of the NetBook era but all over again.
On the consumer side, NetBooks never really replaced an existing device but instead tried to create a new need – albeit one that was at a low enough price point that many people could extend their budgets too in almost throw-away fashion. But their size and sub-performance limited their true abilities and people got bored quickly.
On the business side, there was a rush to the bottom where manufacturers focused on making cheaper and cheaper units, ever more decreasing their profitability until it became financially uninteresting for major players like Dell to maintain any real focus on their NetBook lines (do you see any netbooks on Dell’s website?).
Everything I can see points to the same thing happening in the tablet market. If Apple want their tablet to be mainstream they have to offer a mainstream price-point, and expect to see all of the Android tablets sink quickly to dizzyingly low prices as competition heats up in 2012.
We’ve already learned that content creation and productivity, like with NetBooks, is hard and unsatisfying on a tablet. Lack of a real keyboard, weird viewing angles, whatever. Point is, tablets seem destined to be content consumption and reference devices – which immediately makes them an uber-luxury item for many folks. It also becomes questionable just how valuable tablets are to business if productivity apps are inefficient on the form-factor.
So maybe there is some merit in Craig Mundie’s argument that big screen tablets (ie ones 12″+) might disappear. I think he’s right to imply a lot of interest in the small screen tablet market (7″-9″) – which is currently dominated by the Kindle if you consider that a tablet. That smaller form-factor is cheaper to produce (ie less of a luxury) and more tailored to content consumption over creation/productivity.
However, strategy is often about making bets – sometimes going long, sometimes shorting, sometimes hedging. For a company of its size and dominance I don’t see how Microsoft can afford not to place a bet around the larger tablet market. It’s a competitive space (Google and RIM, not just Apple) but I can’t see how they can throw in the towel before they’ve even tried.
What I don’t see though is how this is stacking up to become the post-pc era. Content still has to be created somewhere, work still has to be worked on somewhere – and at scale, it’s not on the tablet.