The Early Days of Tablet Computing

Much is being talked about and speculated regarding the tablet market. Analysts are adjusting forecasts downwards and pundits are claiming the tablet’s run is over. While we are certainly at an inflection point for tablet computing, the run is far from over.

As many have pointed out, the tablet’s future hinges on software developers. The software community can advance computing in unique ways if only their focus would shift from the smartphone to the tablet. It’s a tough ask in a time where the smartphone is king and will be for the foreseeable future. While I fully recognize and affirm the importance of the smartphone and the central role it plays in bringing many consumers into the computing for the first time, what sticks out to me is a burning question of capabilities. Is the smartphone going to fulfill all the desired capabilities of the billions who know only the smartphone form factor as their central computer or will this next generation demand more than the smartphone can offer?

1978

The way I articulate what I think needs to happen is to reference a particular historical event. In 1978, a very important piece of software came to market. It was called VisiCalc. This one piece of software instantly changed the the future for computing. It was with this piece of software many first realized the PC was no longer a toy or a hobbyist gadget but a tool that would change the workplace forever. From toy to tool with one piece of software.

The tablet needs its 1978 moment. I know many would argue the tablet, and in particular the iPad, has had this moment. But until the masses recognize and software developers embrace the tablet role as a tool then we still have work to do.

What intrigues me as I think about this analogy is the tablet may not have one killer app, or just one 1978 moment — it may have many. The tablet form factor is unique in that it allows its form to embrace a multiplicity of use cases. While one can argue the PC could as well, I’d argue that, from a general purpose viewpoint, the tablet can cover more use cases than the PC. This is the root of my optimism for the category. While it may not be just one piece of software that drives the masses to embrace tablet computing, we need the software community to embrace a vision for the future of computing with a touch computing environment on glass slate.

Early Days

I can’t help but conclude the “sky is falling” theme on the tablet form factor is premature. We are still in the very early stages of this category. As I pointed out in this article on the iPad’s curse, consumers are still figuring out what this form factor means to them on the computing front.

Developers will hopefully embrace the tablet’s capabilities as a tool to produce rather than a form to consume. It is equally, and importantly, both. The masses have seen the consumption value of tablets. Now they need to see their potential as a tool. Once this happens, many things will change.

This is perhaps why Apple is rumored to be adding multitasking to the next version of the iOS for the iPad. This is why Samsung is focused on bringing capabilities to their Android tablets that focus on the tool aspects over the fun aspects of tablets.

Regardless of what other analysts say, I still believe this is a growth category. Watch for carriers to begin to bundle tablets in the subsidy or installment plans they offer to customers. Watch retailers get more aggressive on bundles as well. Watch the tablet market segment heavily to focus on verticals like kids, education, automotive, etc. There are many trigger points which can continue to elevate the tablet market. You just have to know what to look for. While there is no disputing the centrality of the smartphone for the masses, there is a case to be made that devices that extend the capabilities of computing still have a large role to play. Software is the key in taking the tablet from toy to tool. It will happen. It is a matter of when — not if.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

27 thoughts on “The Early Days of Tablet Computing”

  1. I have read any tablet are for entertainment and play games and I have always disagree with their point of view. My iPad Air is a fantastic device that not only does it deliver fun but it also Haley’s me a great deal to do my job. What truly varies is how one uses and needs their tablet. In my case it is a truly amazing tool for preparing exams, texts and, of course, do LOTS of reading. It is been month I last wrote an examination on my PC and because I spend most part of the day out I always reach for my ipad when I have to choose from Amy bulky Dell Laptop and my iPad even when I do need to write fairly large texts. June the 2nd is coming and I just can’t wait to see what Apple has to offer.

  2. Granted there are some major differences between 1978 and now, too. There weren’t a whole of things a computer was being used for, much less a PC. Nowadays, it seems like there is nothing left for a computer to touch. Plus, the market that Visicalc affected was not a broad consumer market. In the larger scheme of things and markets, that is a very niche market.

    Pagemaker, a Mac, and a laser printer was the next major affect of the PC. That was supplanted by the web. As a matter of fact (considering your upcoming postmodern summit), there isn’t much the web hasn’t supplanted.

    I think your notion that it may be many apps or moments is pretty much correct. Seems to me what is left is not an app, but an interface, or how we interact with those apps and the computers they run on. And to that, I don’t think it will come from incumbent technologists, and probably not the western variety. We are too saddled with “tradition” or legacy thinking of what a computer is and can do. PCs are waiting for their next Enlightenment period. I, hope to live long enough to see it happen. Modernity is not a long term care-giver.

    Joe

  3. I don’t doubt that tablets will continue to flourish, although maybe at a slower pace.

    I do have issue with the current situation where almost nobody (myself included) seems to have a concrete idea of how and when (I’m sure that when my kids grow up, we’ll all be using tablets. But that’s like eternity in the tech world). Maybe we are all waiting on WWDC.

  4. I predict a wave of articles after Apple reveals expanded multitasking and other capabilities on the iPad, all pointing to the iPad’s recent ‘stalled’ sales as the root cause, as if Apple suddenly cobbled to together the new iPad features in a couple months as a reaction to plummeting! (dooooom!) sales.

  5. Why doesn’t someone put cell phone tech in a tablet? Get a nice earable to go with it. Good for businesses. No?

  6. for me the moment will be for my workflows to be able to swipe from device to device to devise. select/swipe/drop from my iMac to my iPad to my iPhone. That would be the trick that pivots from Netflix to Keynote.

  7. “Software is the key in taking the tablet from toy to tool. It will happen. It is a matter of when — not if.”

    As you implied earlier in the article, this has happened already to some extent with the iPad. It will take time for yet more powerful apps to be developed and for consumers to learn how to use them.

    It has often been pointed out that there’s an iPad market and a broader “tablet” market. The research firms that estimate market share of course conflate the two, but it would be wiser for analysts to remember to keep them separate.

    1. I’m wondering if tablets are not more like TVs/Radios than computers. I think it’s time we reclassified leisure (vs content-creation) apps as entertainment.

  8. I think the key to what you said is that “…we are certainly at an inflection point…” We are already seeing this in charts showing tablet sales over time. What is worth pointing out is that initial tablets sales grew at a phenomenal rate, even faster than smart phones.

    Just to muddy facts with my opinion, it seems to me that tablets seem to have a pretty long use life. They tend to last longer than a phone.

    1. “They tend to last longer than a phone.”

      True in that they are less likely to break (so don’t need to be replaced) since they aren’t as likely to be used on-the-move and 24/7. But this is also because there aren’t many applications driving the use of faster processors or additional sensors – so people can keep their current model longer before upgrading.

    2. I’d hazard the tablets’ longer useful life in because:
      1- Most people use them for very basic stuff: browsing, watching videos, simple apps and games. As long as the screen size fits your tastes (and screen sizes of tablets unlike phones haven”t changed, except Samsung 12-inchers), there’s no rea

  9. I agree with your optimism, I don’t know if I agree with some of your choice of words. iPad is already “all of the above”. It’s a tool. It’s a toy. It’s work and it’s media.

    I think more than developers, Apple itself needs to drive the desirability of iPad’s larger canvas, and I think the tech-literati’s obsession with “real work” is not going to help them get there. The greatest driver for the need of a larger display is media, and I think Apple can do SO much more in delivering new media services for people.

    I think at some point — if they haven’t already — Apple is going to find a business model to deliver a breakthrough video service that drives their push into dominating the living room. And I think such a service can do more for sales of iPad than any multitasking view or keyboard cover ever will.

  10. A little perspective: in the 6 or so years it was published, less than 1 million copies of VisiCalc were sold. In four years since launch, over 200 million iPads have been sold.

    1. Shouldn’t your analogy use relative numbers? 1 million copies back in the day is something else than 1 million downloads today.

      1. …by a factor of at least a 1,000. Too lazy to do the research…

        VisiCalc changed the landscape. It would take more than a billion to do that today. Hasn’t been done again, yet.

      2. I am pretty sure those 200+ million ipads have collectively made over 1 billion downloads.

        Anyhow, Apple sold less than 10k Apple ][‘s before 1979 and then sold 300K from ’79-81. A lot, though certainly not all, was because of VisiCalc. Apple has already sold over 200 million iPads. No single app is going to cause such an explosion in iPad sales.

          1. Right, but the impact is not _just_ about numbers. It is more about what else were the alternatives? The computer, never mind the PC, was just not being used for many things back then. It was far easier to come up with a game changer related to the PC then than now. There isn’t much left that a computer is _not_ being used for, either directly or indirectly. There are many “killer apps” already, but that is what is diluting their perceived impact, its ubiquity.

            When you start looking at particular industries, the tablet is turning things upside down. But since everything everywhere is being turned upside down, especially because of the internet, _a_ killer app just looks like “same ole, same ole.”

            Joe

          2. I think, by definition, the killer app you described is not a “killer” app.

          3. Maybe. But we are already needing to rethink and essentially redefine “PC”. Why would we think this would not affect the definition of “killer app”?

            Joe

          4. Maybe Visicalc had an unfair advantage by being one of the first software to make an impact. But unfair doesn’t make it untrue. People actually bought PCs because of it. People who didn’t give a s*** about PCs were paying attention. It changed things, like it or not.

            PS: I’m starting to get confused about what this conversation is about.

          5. Sure. I am not saying it was untrue or that any of the numbers you guys have mentioned are incorrect, only that to expect _a_ killer app at a time and culture that a computer already touches most of what we do is at least far more difficult if not, as I believe, impossible. There just isn’t enough untrodden territory (either in terms of people who have computers or tablets, or in terms of what computers are used for, which these days is just about everything) compared to when Visicalc hit the scene.

            In terms of Visicalc driving hardware sales, that is happening with tablets and PCs today already, but since it is affecting many industries and not just one the “killer app” is many and obscuring any one killer app.

            For instance a killer app in the performing arts is Q-Lab. People are buying computers to deal with live performance automation (particularly in audio and video, and to a lessor degree lighting) just to use Q-Lab. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say those purchases outpace what Visicalc did for PC. A small theatre or dance company purchasing a computer just for Q-Lab is a big deal in our industry. But compared to the computer industry at large, meh.

            Joe

  11. Again, I’m not seeing a single killer app, but killer features:
    1- All-terrain uses: desk, chair, sofa, toilet, poolside, bus/metro/train/plane… Tablets are a lot easier to handle in those settings than laptops, and more comfortable than phones.
    2- No Admin needed, no training needed. My elderly parents are still struggling with PC use and safety 20 years on, not with their tablet.

    True Killer App prospects are hampered by mobile phones: Apple in particular chose to make tablets simply bigger phones w/ the exact same OS sans specific features (contrast with Samsung’s stylus, split-screen and picture-in-picture multiwindowing). That means anything a Tablet can do can also be done on the much more portable and ubiquitous phone. Only difference then is screen size, which leaves “TV” as the killer app ? Otherwise I’d say PC replacement, once local storage issue is solved (need a home cloud).

  12. Again, I’m not seeing a single killer app, but killer features:
    1- All-terrain uses: desk, chair, sofa, toilet, poolside, bus/metro/train/plane… Tablets are a lot easier to handle in those settings than laptops, and more comfortable than phones.
    2- No Admin needed, no training needed. My elderly parents are still struggling with PC use and safety 20 years on, not with their tablet.

    True Killer App prospects are hampered by mobile phones: Apple in particular chose to make tablets simply bigger phones w/ the exact same OS sans specific features (contrast with Samsung’s stylus, split-screen and picture-in-picture multiwindowing). That means anything a Tablet can do can also be done on the much more portable and ubiquitous phone. Only difference then is screen size, which leaves “TV” as the killer app ? Otherwise I’d say PC replacement, once local storage issue is solved (need a home cloud).

  13. Tablets have peaked, but they have also permanently changed us into full-time video consumers and made the term “Prime Time” meaningless. This is a bigger deal than most people think, and there is NO WAY this toothpaste can climb back into the tube!

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