Why there is no tablet PC market

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7 September 2011 | 0

Last week’s IFA showcase in Berlin crystalised the arrival of three technologies that technology companies are hoping will ascend from aspirational to must have status: smart TVs, 3D and tablet PCs. In the case of the latter, competition was fierce in terms of quantity of new models, but a lack of original ideas is threatening to stymie the development in the market.

This year Sony, Sharp, Acer, HTC, Dell, Packard Bell, Toshiba, Lenovo and Archos unveiled products intended to carve more off Apple’s market share, estimated at 70%. The problem is that put side-by-side the second wave of mid-priced tablets are virtually identical, run the same operating system and compete at similar price points. But for the branding and variation in form factor, offering a choice of 7" and 10" screens (granted, Sharp is experimenting with glassesless 3D and Toshiba is going for slimmer devices) and Android 3.1 Honeycomb proliferation, it’s arguable the competition isn’t really between hardware but software, iOS versus Android. If you want something different on a tactile level, your options are limited.

Depressing as the lack of choice in design and user experience may be, there is an argument for conservatism in the tablet space. As markets go the revived tablet space is less than 18 months old and still proving itself, let alone driving any innovation. In fact innovation has worked against many of the more promising tablet offering in recent months. Blackberry’s Playbook is likely to sell 1.5 million units this year, Motorola’s technically superior Xoom fell prey to its price tag and will be doing well to sell 2 million units out of a target of 10 million for the year. More tragic is the case of HP’s TouchPad. Running the webOS system from Palm devices, it failed to connect with consumers and was discontinued after a month.

More concerning is the critique of sales figures for Samsung’s Galaxy tab line; perceived as a best place alternative to the iPad. Unverified estimates put combined sales of the 7" and 10" Galaxy tab range been in the region of 1.5 million units last year. However Lenovo, about to enter the market with their cut-price IdeaPad, has accused the company of flooding the market with inventory to crowd out competitors and has quoted actual sales figures as low as 20,000 units. Given sales of the tab have been frozen in Germany and Australia following a patent suit filed by Apple a very different picture of the marketplace may develop over the coming months seeing Apple increasing its market share by simple virtue of actually selling its stock, instead of merely shipping it to distributors.

 

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Low-brow

What the competition is left to pick over for their tablet offerings is a lowest common denominator approach – enough to enter the market without actually adding anything to it. Looking at the array of tablets on offer provided a stark illustration of how homogenous the space has already become an endless queue of black touch screens (honourable mention to HTC, who opted for white) with the same, the same touch-sensitive side buttons and the same user experience – not so much iPad killers as Galaxy tab clones.

The only winner here is Google. Android’s commercial success is predicated on having as many users buying apps off the Android Market application store. As it is available free of charge it represents a significant cost and time saving for manufacturers. It’s ubiquity, however, only serves to undermine technical advances in the space – the Xoom being a fine case of impressive hardware undercut by cheaper models that do exactly the same thing.

Until manufacturers find ways to differentiate their products they will be fighting over scraps while Apple and Google surge forward. Without variety there is no market.

 

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