September 03, 2005

Tablet PCs: A Reality Check

I came across a very good set of articles today relating to the Tablet PC's lackluster market performance. First, there's the doom and gloom from various market analysts in the BetaNews' "Tablet PC Platform in Trouble?" piece. Yet David Coursey's eWeek column, "Tablet PC Is Stronger Than Predictions Suggest" adds some much needed perspective on the issues.

My perspective is somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Back around the millennium, at the very pinnacle of the Palm and Pocket PC PDA hype, I recall reading analysts' staggering predictions of PDA market share numbers by 2010 that struck me as unsustainable. I felt the analysts didn't fully grasp the concepts of market maturity and saturation at the time. Not to mention that mobile technology experiences fads and subsumption -- as newer and different types of technologies absorb, morph, and obsolete them. For instance, think of how even mid-range cell phones have affected the PDA and pager markets, not to mention the incredible amount of convergence between e-mail, organizers, text messaging, and voice features.

From that point on, while I found tech market analysts' predictions interesting, I knew they were just as swayed by hype and emotion as anyone else. I've seen major analysts' product and vendor rankings that were just plain wrong when further examined. Thus in this regard, I agree with Coursey, and these analysts need to get a grip on reality and admit when they've been off target. I'd also like to see a more conservative approach in their projections, because, after all, they're just guesses.

I've tried numerous PDAs and a few tablets. To sum up my experience, I found Palm-based PDAs to have an intuitive handwriting and navigation interface which facilitated very fast adoption. Pocket PCs, not so much at first, but they've improved and are quite usable once you get acclimatized.

So, moving back to the future: Tablet PCs are just a much harder sell. Why? Well, first there's the price premium for what's effectively a scaled-down PC, and they're much more expensive than a PDA. Even in good economic times, companies managing large fleets of PCs will be less than eager to see the multiplied effect of that per-machine premium on their financials. Several years later, the price difference is finally lessening, but it's still there. Then there's the input paradigm shift from a laptop, but having a keyboard definitely helps, as does a twist display.

I said here well over a year ago: "Don't get me wrong, I think Tablet PCs definitely have their own niches and strengths and are extremely cool, but in a tight economy, a $500 PDA that meets 70-80% of a user's mobile needs is a lot more marketable." For the right uses, a tablet PC could come in very handy. I just think that many businesses will be more comfortable issuing stock laptops and BlackBerries (or possibly Treos) than have to support yet another niche line of products. With the notable exception (pardon the pun) of Microsoft's OneNote, I just haven't seen the "killer apps" for tablets, and it's been several years now. If you do a lot of note-taking, markup, and creative brainstorming, then I could make a better business case. But then I think one would want better collaboration tools between tablet and non-tablet users, and that's more difficult to do well.

In the end, I don't expect tablets to soar nor to go away overnight. Are they cool? Absolutely, but that doesn't factor into a business case. The tablet and software developers need to get together a whole lot more than they have and present us with much more compelling use and collaboration factors. Then they may start to gain better traction. But until that happens, I think tablets will stay relegated to the niche market, used more for sales, field, medical, and other markets where you need to record point-of-contact type information. That could also work in some legal instances, depending on the practice, but it's still not ready for broad adoption by any means. Too bad, as I was seriously rooting for tablets to have been making better inroads by now.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard