The tablet industry is starting to worry me. While for years, I’ve been a proud tablet owner and have no plans to change course, I’m starting to think that today’s tablet-makers care less about what makes me or you happy and more about the supply chain, margins, and shareholders.
Now, of course companies are competing in the tablet market because they want to generate a profit. And far be it from me to tell them that they’re wrong for that. But over the last year or so I’ve seen a disturbing trend: The tablet industry we all fell in love with is no longer in the same space.
Suffice it to say that I have some very major issues with the tablet industry that I hope companies like Apple, Google, Samsung, and others, will be able to address at some point in the future. But my hunch tells me that, for the most part, the very things that strikes fear in my heart over tablets will be those things that stay with this industry for the long-haul.
Here’s the terrible trio I’m talking about:
1. PC redux
Commoditization has officially taken hold in the tablet business. With each new product launch, consumers and enterprise customers are finding products running the same operating systems – iOS and Android, for the most part, with Windows the well-funded underdog – and boast the same, basic specs.
Component makers have become the true beneficiaries of our new tablet industry. The same processors, RAM, displays, and batteries find their way into our slates, giving us essentially the same product internally, regardless of the brand.
A comparison on the outside is even more concerning. Most tablets today come with rounded edges, a standard black finish with a small bezel, and a hodgepodge of physical buttons. There are, of course, companies that are building hybrid devices that act as notebooks and tablets, but for the purists out there, finding too many differences in design is extremely difficult.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly what happened to the PC industry. Although several companies are selling computers today, in the vast majority of cases, customers will find the same specs, the same, basic design, and the same operating system choices, regardless of the firm behind those products.
Tablets became popular because they were fresh and exciting. They’ve now become commoditized and have lost much of their uniqueness.
2. Innovation is lost
What ever happened to taking chances? The tablet industry got off to a strong start after Apple decided to take its iPhone model and move that to a larger screen. Soon after, Android device makers tried their own takes on tablets to jump on the growing trend, and in many cases, innovation was the deciding factor in success.
If you offered an iPad-wannabe like the Motorola Xoom, it would fail. If you offered up something new and interesting, like the Kindle Fire, it would succeed.
But innovation seems to be on life support in the tablet industry. Each year, Apple, Amazon, Google, and all the others launch new slates that have only incremental upgrades. The designs on those products hardly change, and like sheep, we flock to the stores, thinking we’re getting something truly special from the device-makers. In reality, we’re getting the same product we had last year with a few improvements.
I want to see companies today innovate on tablet designs, find ways to make software more functional and comparable to desktop operating systems, and develop new ways for us to work on slates.
Certainly more tablet innovation is possible, but for whatever reason we’re not seeing it.
3. Profit-taking to rule it all
Those two tablet problems bring us to one driving factor that concerns me more than anything else: profits.
Again, I’m in no place to judge a company that wants to generate a profit on products so it can employ more people and deliver more products. But I do become concerned when products hit store shelves featuring nominal improvements for no other reason than to boost margins.
Take, for example, the iPad Air. A fine device in its own right, the iPad Air is, all things considered, a slight upgrade over the previous Apple slate. But when I booted it up for the first time, I got the sense Apple deisgner Jony Ive pitched Tim Cook on something so different and innovative, and was told to back off and think about profits.
The fewer the upgrades, the more recycling of parts, the easier the production process, the more money Apple (and every other device-maker) makes. It’s very simple.
This is not to say that Apple is the only company worrying about profits – most are – but at what point do customers get left out of all of the benefits of tablet ownership simply because a company wants to make $150 on each unit, rather than $135? I’m not saying that profits are a bad thing, but wouldn’t it be nice if companies were willing to make a little less just to provide something even better?
I certainly think so and who’s to say that wouldn’t result in more unit sales and more profits?
A ray of hope?
While the tenor of this column might suggest that I’m totally down on the tablet industry, I’m not. I’m always amazed at the quality of some third-party apps that crop up in the App Store or Google Play Marketplace, and I think gaming on tablets has turned a corner to be considered on the same plane as traditional products.
There’s also a part of me that believes in the technology industry perhaps a bit more than I should. I believe that while tablet makers are acting short-sighted at the moment, eventually, one of them will come around and see that there’s an opportunity out there to do something special and attract more customers.
When that happens, many of my concerns will be allayed and the cycle of innovation to plateauing to commoditization will start again.
Let’s all hope that comes sooner than later.
(The only conference about tablets, TABLET STRATEGY, will be on May 6 in New York City. You may be eligible for a free pass if you qualify as a Tablet/Mobile Manager. If you don't qualify, there are still a few tickets available at $175 each, breakfast and lunch included. Check conditions and register on the registration page.)