Tablet proving hard to swallow
Almost one year on from its much-trumpeted launch, users are less than addicted: is the tablet PC the cure to users’ needs? When the format was unveiled late last year, IDC was less than charitable with its predictions, saying that it would be some time before tablet PCs gained traction in the market.
It was a Microsoft representative who rather boldly claimed at launch time that within five years the majority of mobile computers would be tablets, but if Canalys is to be believed, we have some way to travel in a short space of time if the early predictions are to be met. Its research indicates that the format accounts for a mere 1pc of overall notebook shipments so far.
Bad news tends to breed quickly and others appear eager to crush the tablet prematurely. A report last month told of how one UK distributor had slashed the price of Fujitsu Siemens tablets by more than half — from £1,500 sterling to a mere £600 sterling. It sounds alarming but a call confirmed that the distributor in question was simply offloading end-of-line stock and the price cut affected 50 units at most. Irish tablet prices remained unchanged; the model on sale here actually differs slightly from the one sold in the UK.
Price may actually be causing the tablet to suffer by comparison with its notebook PC siblings. One prominent Irish retailer quotes a gap of €500 between the tablet it sells and its closest laptop equivalent. While the comparison is not exactly like-for-like, passing shoppers are unlikely to want to part with half a grand extra for the privilege of toting a tablet.
Making the comparison unfairer still is that since the format's launch last year, there have been several refreshes to notebook product lines, with new mobile computing features the tablet hasn't yet been able to avail of. Overall, the tablet's performance in the local retail market has been disappointing, trade sources suggest.
Let's not forget that it was released in two formats to make it more palatable to the IT buyer: the slate is a tablet-only device whereas the convertible tablet PC is a hybrid of sorts that resembles an ultraportable notebook, but which comes with a display that can be clipped onto the keyboard when in tablet mode. Early market intelligence suggests that users so far feel more comfortable with the two-in-one version.
Perhaps all the formula really needs is a tweak. Original models were powered by Pentium III chips — at the time when tablets made their bow, Intel's Centrino mobile computing chipset was still some months away from launch. With the tablet a naturally mobile device anyway, coupling it with a processor and integrated chipset designed with wireless connectivity in mind sounds like a winner. Add to that the extended battery life it promises and Centrino could be the missing ingredient to revive the tablet — a spot of technology Viagra, if you will.
In the meantime, however, we should be wary of pronouncements damning the tablet: it simply needs to be given time. It had the misfortune of being launched during the worst technology year ever and happened to get saddled with the hopes and expectations of an ailing PC industry. Encouragingly, even as analysts and commentators appear ready to trash the tablet prematurely, there are signs that vendors remain a good deal more confident. Sources at Toshiba indicate that a new tablet, powered by the Centrino chipset, is being readied, although a launch date is unconfirmed. The vendor is also understood to be considering multiple versions of the format.
Locally, there are signs of life in the public sector, with manufacturers making inroads, however slight, into the healthcare, education and government markets with some early tablet sales. One trade insider suggests that the format has a long sales cycle and relies to a degree on purchasing managers seeing the hardware in action and then evangelising on its potential to convince others.
More tablet-specific applications are also needed, but in IT-land, we are forever waiting on software to catch up with the capabilities of hardware. It wouldn't be the first occasion that the germ of a good technology idea made it from the R&D lab to the store shelf slightly earlier than it should have. Almost a decade ago, Apple was the butt of jokes everywhere thanks to its Newton handheld computer, with handwriting recognition features that left a lot to be desired. Fast forward and this same technology has made leaps and bounds; the only irony is that the platform that shows it off best is none other than the tablet PC.
But another reliable indicator that the format is getting traction will be when, or if, Dell unveils its own model. Always a follower and never a leader when it comes to IT hardware, the Texan PC giant only bets on a sure thing. Not for Dell the slings and arrows of extensive product development and the risk of not getting it right first time. As long as the tablet remains a little used piece of gadgetry it will have minimal chance of becoming commoditised. Only when that latter point is near at hand will Dell enter the fray, to beat competitors by ruthlessly driving down prices and assembling the products faster than anyone else. In other words, the moment Dell decides to enter the market, you can be sure the tablet has a future.
By Gordon Smith