Venture capitalist and former Netflix product manager Zal Bilimoria recently wrote a provocative piece, titled Our Love Affair With the Tablet is Over, that got our attention.
The post in Re/code makes several assertions that simply don’t mesh with the trends we at TabTimes are seeing in the market.
One thing is true. The notion that tablets would be a very clearly distinctive category has indeed lost some of its allure.
When Apple launched the iPad and, by the same token, the tablet category, it was clearly a very different device. Its screen was much, much larger than the iPhone - which was then the smartphone of record. The iPad also had a touchscreen and no keyboard. These two features clearly distinguished it from a laptop.
A common factor, though, was somewhat overlooked: The iPad shared iOS with the iPhone. While iPad apps were, initially, completely separate from iPhone apps, sharing the same key software framework showed that the category lines could become blurred later on.
In the Android camp, talking about blurred lines would be an understatement. Google’s mobile OS has birthed a plethora of rectangular touch screen devices of all sizes. Your guess of where to draw the line between phones and tablets is as good as mine.
All devices - tablets, smartphones and laptops - have evolved and converged. As a result, we are now seeing a continuum of devices rather than clearly defined categories. The difference between a large smartphone and a small tablet is, today, as murky as the difference between a Surface and a hybrid or convertible PC.
Tablets at the epicenter
Has this vanishing of clear borders between phones, tablets and laptops somewhat weakened the tablet category? Quite the opposite: it has strengthened it.
Tablets are at the epicenter of the spectrum and that's certainly not a bad place to be.
Bilimoria’s main argument seems to be that the tablet may never become the winner-takes-all, primary device and that he now uses his phone more and his tablet less. (He doesn’t even mention his laptop because, you know, it’s less sexy than mobile.)
Fair enough. Super heavy tech users like VCs, developers and IT pros will all continue to own and use both a smartphone and a laptop. For them, tablets may be a less important, at home only, media consumption and gaming device.
But out of the Silicon Valley/Bay Area, I don’t buy that tablets are the third-rank computing device. Just look around:
- Do you have toddlers or young kids? Have you offered them an iPhone 5S with a data plan yet? Do you let them play with the laptop you work with? Or are they more familiar with a tablet?
- Have you gone to a school or a university lately? Sure, most high-school and all college students have a phone. This was already the situation 4 years ago, wasn't it? But have you noticed what devices have been distributed as the primary learning tool? There’s no match for the speed at which campuses have welcomed tablets.
- Did you visit a hospital recently? Did you see many nurses and doctors wandering around with a laptop? Not really. For smock makers, that an iPad mini can easily fit in a pocket is a must.
- If you have parents over 70, do they really prefer reading their news, browsing Facebook and dealing with email on their rather-small-screen phone? As their own mobility decreases, and unless they have specific tasks for which a computer is better suited, many older people have happily adopted tablets as their main computing device - especially if they did not have a long experience, earlier in life, using a keyboard and a mouse.
- Hear about India, that distant country whose population will overtake the Chinese by 2030? The opening of the tablet category has paved the way for super-cheap devices, which have increased the “computing tools” penetration by a major factor.
Tablets go to work
For people who have only two devices, there is little doubt that one of them will be ultra-portable and with ubiquitous connectivity - let's call it a phone - and the other one will have a larger screen and a keyboard. This may be a laptop. But it could also very well be a tablet with a keyboard.
I won’t say that people are abandoning laptops for tablets in droves. But all data (see our State of the Tablet Market report) show how fast the tablet category is growing, while sales for laptops are eroding, when not falling. An added keyboard is enough to make a good tablet the main computing device in many households.
In developed countries, most adults won’t settle for just two devices. Many, many people will have three. They may use a tablet mostly at home and during long commutes, for media consumption, gaming and small daily tasks. But, for some people (in-the-field sales people, utility repairmen, etc.), tablets have already become a primary work device. We will see more of them.
And for the many people who may only own one personal device - young children, older people, second or third people in a household who can't justify owning and paying for all three devices for themselves; and many people in emerging countries where cost is a major issue - a large percentage of these will be happy to own just a tablet.
Some VCs in Silicon Valley may be oblivious to it, but the tablet revolution is just getting started.
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