15 September 2011

On Choosing Tablets

About 2,500 years ago, the Greek Philosopher Heracletus observed that the only thing constant is change.  This is especially true in the world of mobile technology, where it can seem like a lifetime of change in just one lap around the sun.

For about the last 18 months, techno-lust of many of the technorati around the world has centered on Apple’s I-Pad.  The I-Pad is a sexy 9.7" high resolution capacitive touch tablet which in its various iterations has sold over 28 million units. What else could you ask for?  Well, the ability to easily watch Flash Video when surfing the Web. Since Apple wants to promote its own standards and ensure that “buggy” external applets do not interfere with the seamless user experience, so it does not include Flash Video as part of the O/S.

Even though Apple charges a premium for the I-Pad, many willing adherents of the Apple cult are willing to pay the upwards of $500 for its lowest costing tablets and many also opt to pay for monthly 3G data charges. But the boys from Cupertino understand that there are many ways to monetize.  Apple exerts iron fisted control over their App Store, not only to insure quality but to make sure that Apple gets a big slice of the profits.  Apple demands 30% from all sales in their app store.  Based on Amazon’s negotiations with most large publishers, that takes away all of Amazon’s profit.  To address this issue, Amazon embodied the joke “There’s an app for that” and created circumventing software.

When the I-Pad came out, there were concerns that it would be a Kindle killer.  That was mistaken as Amazon’s classic e-book reader uses e-ink technology which displays well in sunlight, is easy on the eyes, uses minimal power and is well suited to reading. While one can read books on a I-Pad, the touch screen is a magnet for fingerprints and needs to be regularly cleaned. The seductive I-Pad screen is well suited for media consumption, such as surfing the web in color, doing light computing  or watching videos.

Not being an Apple Fan Boy, the I-Pad had no appeal.  The premium which people pay for a “walled garden” shiny toy is what I call “the convenience tax” (sometimes more derisively known as “the stupid tax”).  I-Pads currently represent about 70% of the tablet market.  But it should be a big market where there are more choices.  After a year of having the I-Pad being the top of the tablets, several major manufacturers have entered the market. Most of the new entranced emulated the I-Pad’s price point and physical dimensions albeit employing Android O/S.  Comparatively speaking, Motorola’s Xoom sales are idling in comparison to Apple.  The ASUS Eee Pad Transformer is an Android tablet which has an optional detachable physical keyboard.  Having a real QWERTY keyboard price point that is 1/3 lower than a baseline I-Pad is appealing to some consumers but it has not ended the Cupertino king’s tablet reign.

One I-Pad rival succeeded in its failure.  The H.P. Touchpad is a slick 9.7" capacitive touch screen WiFi only tablet  that used an innovated WebOS, the software that H.P. paid $1.2 Billion to buy Palm seemingly just for the software.  HP initially positioned its tablet at the upper range of the I-Pad price point and had slim sales for the first six weeks on the market.  Then H.P. decided to abandon the tablet manufacturing market and cut its losses by closing out the Touchpad.  In one weekend, H.P. sold out of 350,000 units and temporarily became the number two tablet manufacturer, albeit selling its tablet at a significant loss.  H.P.’s strategerie (sic) was probably to clear out its stock while creating a buzz for the WebOS which could be used in other tablets.  As for that business models success, Tomorrow Never Knows.  But the Blaze of Glory that greeted the H.P. Touchpad fire sale demonstrated that there is a pent up consumer demand for tablets that have a lower price point.

Some smart budget consumers have figured out ways to hack Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color ($250) into making it into a dual boot full Android tablet.  This can work but the conversion process may be limited to geeks. The 7" capacitive touch LCD screen is very visually appealing, but it is 50% smaller than the I-Pad’s 9.7" screen and does not have the battery endurance of e-ink readers (the Nook Classic or the current Kindles).  The Nook Color is WiFi only and has no buttons so page turning requires touching the screen which makes a cleaning cloth essential for a screen saver when reading.   That being said, the Nook Color has temporarily toppled the Kindle from the top spot of e-book readers (but that might be based on particular model sales).

For the last few months, Amazon has been cagey about its long rumored color tablet.  Details are still sketchy, but Amazon will probably have a 7" capacitive touch tablet with WiFi that will be priced at $249.  Superficially, that seems like it is copying the Nook Color.  But it seems that Amazon will be forking an older version of Android.  Even though Amazon is rumored to sell the hardware at a $50 loss, it estimates that it will recoop its money through purchases of books, video and sales from its Amazon Apps market. What may make the inchoate Amazon offering attractive is the prospect of including a complimentary subscription to Amazon Prime.  This means quick standard shipping on all purchases and gratis downloading from Amazon videos. Industry experts opine that Amazon could sell three million of these units by the end of the year. The Amazon Tablet would be well poised to capture e-book readers who want color and multi-media offerings as well as being a tablet computer which makes buying from America’s largest e-retailer easy.

Personally, as a consumer I prefer an e-book reader which is easy on the eyes, can be read outdoors, has a long battery life and has built in 3G connection. Hence I would have today’s Kindle.  Tablets are tantalizing but I perceive it as a primarily a media device not an e-reader.  If there is a long term enrollment of Amazon Prime baked into the rumored Kindle Tablet and the price point holds, that will be very tempting.  But for me, I would want build in complimentary 3G and a 10" screen for a tablet.

So I took the leap of getting a HP Touchpad.  I am impressed with WebOS, it does have quality apps and a decent but not huge selection of workable Pre-ware, and hackers have made great progress into making it into a dual boot Android tablet. Although H.P. promised to sell 100,000 more units by late October, I suspect those will be gone in a flash. So I paid a bit of a premium but within the popular price point.

When choosing a tablet, consumers should spend a bit of time BEFORE buying to anticipate how they will actually use their shiny new toy.  One size does not fit all. Those who want a seamless experience might pay a premium, others who want to do techno-tinkering might save some coin. Sometimes the best technology does not survive.  Remember the Edsel? Or the Sony Beta-Max?  How about the neXT computer?

I don’t need to induce Apple envy amongst acquaintances or worry about resale value.  I want something that works for me.  Thus I’m for choice, not a one-sized-fit-all solution.  Kind of what American should be doing for health care instead of acquiescing to a behemoth single payer health care system.


anax-ilank said...

Nice post....

El Barroco said...

@anax-ilank Thanks for the compliment. I really like helping people figure out what is the right technology for them. Newer is not necessarily better. Bells and whistles can be needlessly confusing and sometimes the less popular manufacturers try harder with more feature friendly products.