Tablets passé already? I think not

Sections: Features, iPad, iPad Air, iPad mini, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

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Zal Bilimoria—a partner with the Menlo Park, California-based venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz that was founded in 2009 by Marc Andreessen (of Internet pioneering Netscape Web browser fame) and Ben Horowitz—blogged for that way back in 2011 he was involved in an all-consuming love affair with tablets. At the time, Bilimoria was first-ever head of mobile at Netflix, and says he saw tablets in his sleep running apps that would control homes, entertain billions and dutifully chug away at work. Tablets, he was convinced, were a third device category that would fill the device space between smartphones and a laptops.

Bilimoria observes that plenty of others were getting in on the tablet love fest, with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, HP, and even BlackBerry (then RIM) all rushing into the market to take on Apple, whose iPad commanded a whopping 70% of the tablet market one year after Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad. On the other hand, there were folks like me who were hesitant to precipitously join the herd of bandwagon-jumpers. I waited more than a year to join the iPad revolution, finally buying an iPad 2 in June, 2011.

iPad 2

Now, says Bilimoria, not quite four years and 225 million tablets sold later, he’s fallen out of love and declares he’s starting to see how misplaced his initial passion for tablets was, observing the tablet couldn’t possibly shoulder all the expectations people had for it.

Well, I had few expectations when I bought mine, partly out of curiosity as to what the fuss was all about. I hoped that it would turn out to be an alternative tool to my fleet of Apple laptops, and while it turned out to be more than a bit functionally disappointing in that context, the iPad quickly grew on me to the point where it now does about half the stuff I used to do exclusively on laptops. I’m totally addicted, and while the tablet (or more accurately the iOS it runs on), still frustrates me mightily with the compromises and shortcomings that defeat the iPad as a truly satisfactory laptop surrogate, it also has some strengths of its own that a laptop can’t match.

As Bilmoria puts it, the tablet is “Not a replacement for your laptop or phone—but kinda…. Something you kick back with in the living room, fire up at work and also carry with you everywhere—sort of.” However, in his estimation, while tablets have indeed sold in huge numbers, rather than becoming the constant companion that many enthusiasts in the early going imagined they would, he suggests most tablets today sit idle on coffee tables and nightstands, and our love for them is aledgedly dying.

Well, speak for yourself, Mr. Bilimoria. You must travel in different circles than I do. I’m not hotly in love with my iPad, but I’ve developed a strong respect for it within its manifold limitations, and am seriously addicted. Apple’s fiscal 2014 first quarterly holiday iPad sales were a record 26 million units during the quarter, up 13.5% from the 22.9 million iPads sold in its fiscal Q1 2013. And the lion’s share of those were the latest full-sized iPad model, the new iPad Air—not the new Retina display iPad mini 2. That doesn’t sound like a dying product category to me.

Yes, the iPhones outsold the iPads by nearly two to one, also hitting quarterly record sales, but it’s a tenuous comparison: Apples and other Apples.

Nevertheless, Bilimoria contends that users are abandoning their tablets for pocketable devices that can access the Web anywhere and anytime via Wi-Fi or cellular connections. He argues that only 12% of tablets have cellular connectivity, rendering them not fully mobile devices. He has drawn the conclusion “… that it has been the phone all along,” and that what we are witnessing today is a merger of phones with tablets, portending that this decade’s attempt at redefining tablets’ role is nearing its death—just four years after Jobs launched the original iPad, asserting without specific attribution that “… the latest sales data has shown that worldwide tablet sales may have already peaked,” and that while PCs took a full three decades to reach market saturation, tablets may have already hit a proverbial glass ceiling at the four-year mark.

iPad Air

I beg to differ. iPad users who want 4G LTE connectivity can get it. I personally can’t imagine doing a large proportion of the stuff I do with my iPad on a smaller display panel—even the Retina unit in the iPad mini 2. Samsung’s latest new Galaxy products are a pair of 12.2-inch display “Pro” tablets. Apple is rumored to be developing a 13-inch panel iPad for release in late summer or fall of this year.

Market research firm NPD DisplaySearch’s Quarterly Mobile PC Shipment and Forecast Report predicts that tablets will be outselling laptop computers by a three-to-one margin by 2017.

According to IDC, another market metrics analyst outfit, Apple and Samsung were the top two tablet vendors in the third quarter of 2013, with 29.6% and 20.4% of global market share respectively. Those numbers are expected to change quickly, however, as so-called “white box tablets” (typically low-cost slates running variants of Android) gain popularity worldwide.

Bilimoria argues that it boils down to size, maintaining that the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of people who use tech every day are just fine with having two primary computing devices: one in their pocket and one on their desk, while tablets are trying (and, in his estimation, failing) to be portable enough to go everywhere, yet large enough to be multipurpose. And despite a panoply of workarounds that purportedly make a tablet into a laptop, it isn’t one.

No argument on that point. I’ve never been that taken with iPad keyboard cases and such. If one wants full laptop functionality in a tablet-sized machine, Apple has you well covered with the 11.6-inch MacBook Air. Personally, a large part of the iPad’s appeal is that you’ve got a slab-shaped device with no moving parts save for a few control buttons that is eminently portable, has a usably-sized virtual keyboard, and actually can pinch hit for about 80% of what a laptop can do, although not always as elegantly and efficiently. But good enough that it gets used a lot—by me, at least.

Some folks say they use their iPad and laptop in an 80-20 ratio respectively. I can’t imagine reaching that point unless Apple relents and builds a pro iPad with real multitasking, file level directory access, USB connectivity, and mouse support, but I really wouldn’t want to have to go back to doing the things the iPad does well on a laptop, with the limitations that imposes.

No, you can’t carry a 9.7-inch iPad in your pocket, although it’s feasible with an iPad mini if you have large pockets. I’m not primarily a mobile iPad user, but when I do hit the road with mine, it’s reasonably easy to pack along in a small messenger bag or portfolio case.

So what does Mr. Bilimoria propose as the next big thing alternative to tablets? Phablets. He suggests that it’s quite possible the tablet and jumbo-sized smartphone categories will merge this decade into a single five-inch device that fits in your pocket or purse, representing a third and final wave of tablet evolution.

I can’t agree. I don’t dispute that phablets may turn out to serve as do-all devices for many consumer level users, but it depends greatly on one’s functional definition of “all.” As I noted above, even the iPad mini’s 8-inch screen is too constricted to serve as a serious work platform for non-masochists. Sure, some folks with a high tolerance for doing input on teensy keyboards and squinting at tiny display renderings in the letterbox slot left by said KBs will try to use five or six inch display smartphones as general duty workhorses. I wish them well, but I can’t imagine any sub-nine inch display ever being more than seriously compromised in a production role.

Bilimoria concedes that full-sized tablets are not going to “disappear completely,” citing Apple CEO Tim Cook’s projection that a new avenue of tablet market expansion is opening up in the enterprise sector, but contends that from his perspective “the future certainly does look phabulous.”

That’s not my anticipation, but we’ll have to wait and see which of our respective projections gels into consummate reality.

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