Why the rise of the Productivity Tablet is a reset of Steve Jobs' vision

by Ben Bajarin

November 10 2013

Ben Bajarin is Director of the Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley. His TabTimes column is published every other Sunday.


Perhaps it was inevitable but the tablet market is bi-furcating. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, it seemed as though he and many others were not exactly sure what they had.  

But they believed they had something. From very early on you could see the writing on the wall that this form factor alone could change computing in positive ways and even advance computing in ways the laptop and desktop form factors never could. 

When analysts (including myself) started thinking about how tablets fit into the overall computing mix, many firms started labeling them as media tablets. The belief was that this form factor would not be used for productivity, but just for consumption of media. 

While it is still true today that many tablets are developed with pure media consumption in mind, there is a trend toward productivity with these devices as well. In fact, even Apple's latest commercial for the iPad Air portrays the device as if it is a blank canvas full of computing possibilities.  

This is why we see the tablet market bi-furcating into distinct media-only tablets and tablets that can also be used for more productive use cases.  

(For other analyses, trends, insights and tips about tablet productivity, sign up for the free TabTimes Weekly Best newsletter.)

Media vs. productivity

What separates a media tablet from a productivity tablet? From my point of view, it all comes down to software. Set a tablet on a table with the screen off and it is just a paperweight. The software is what defines the hardware.  

Many tablets are being created with software solutions that simply limit them to being a media-only solution. Sure you can check email and some "lite" tasks which some may call productivity, but when you look at how consumers use the vast majority of these devices they are used for media consumption the majority of time.  

Tablet ecosystems where software developers create software that allow for more productivity use cases will be the ones that people use for more than just media.  

Why size matters

There is also the question of screen size. I like to say the larger the screen the more productive we can be. I'm most productive when sitting at my desk in front of my dual 27" monitors because I can have many applications open and see and access data from many apps simultaneously.  

As the screen size shrinks my efficiency in productivity tasks diminishes. This is why for true "get work done" tablets the ideal screen size will be larger.  

The iPad's 9.7" screen is probably the cut off or minimum in this regard. That's right, minimum. Already you hear many pundits speculate and hope for a larger iPad, the rumored "iPad Air Pro" to have a bigger screen to accommodate more productivity-based use cases.  

While it is still possible for smaller screen tablets to be productivity devices, it is more likely the larger screen tablets become the preferred form factor for those who want the best of both worlds of productivity and media and entertainment. 

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Another difference for productivity tablets ....

The last would be connectivity. Historically the percentage of tablets sold with a 3G/4G modem built into them has been fairly low, approximately 30%. And approximately half of those purchased with a cellular modem ever get activated.  

The vast majority of tablets sold and in use today are being used on Wifi. However, it seems the iPad Air may be turning that trend. 

AT&T noted that iPad Air activations on their network were up 5 times from that of the iPad 4's launch. As more consumers, businesses, enterprises, etc., grasp the importance of productivity tablets in their lives, I expect more and more of those devices get connected for the value of mobile computing they offer out in the world. 

Interestingly, Verizon just announced that they are bringing to market their own branded tablet called the Ellipsis 7. I’m sure a key reason for this move is to drive value to their data plan.

The problem is the specs they choose make it more likely that it is used primarily as a media tablet than a productivity tablet. But Verizon also said it's the first in a family of Ellipsis devices. I would not be surprised if the next one is more productivity-oriented and other carriers follow suit with similar solutions. 

The impact of productivity tablets to the industry cannot be underestimated. Our firm estimates that the iPad has single-handedly taken around 100 million PCs out of the annual refresh cycle and we don't believe it is finished. 

Consumers, business, and enterprises alike are realizing the unique form factor that tablets are to their personal and professional work flow. So far this has been primarily as consumption and media devices. As the market splits to allow for productivity tablets, we're sure to see a new round of innovative development and new applications that will be quite a step forward from what the original iPad promised.

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Ben Bajarin is Director of the Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley. His TabTimes column is published every other Sunday.
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