A clean slate

We discuss the tablet PC market with the experts
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The concept behind the tablet PC has been floating around for a while now, from the pages of science fiction novels, to the initial promise of Windows XP Tablet Edition in 2001.

However, the idea floundered in the past as successive generations of hardware have been unable to meet the demands of consumers.

“Battery life was poor, functionality was not good and processors were not up to the job,” comments Archos’ managing director for Northern Europe, Tony Limrick on the previous generation of tablets. “All this has changed and they can now offer true portability with functionality.”

Following years of development, the technology behind the components and software interface has advanced to the point where the tablet form can offer a realistic and sustainable model for general release.

It would be remiss to write an article on tablet PCs without mentioning the iPad. While it has faced some criticism about certain features, for example the lack of multi-tasking and the absence of Flash support, the advertising drive behind the device has raised public awareness of these devices in an unprecedented way.

NEXT GENERATION

“Thanks to the marketing clout behind Apple’s iPad, the form factor is just now starting to get a lot of recognition,” says Motion Computing’s vice president for worldwide sales, Nigel Owens. “With business and social lifestyles becoming more demanding, many industry sectors are adapting their workforces to embrace tablet PCs due to the increase in productivity among workers and lower administration costs compared to pen and paper.”

VIP’s purchasing director, Duncan McAuley adds: “Apple has created the demand that we are seeing, just as they did with the iPhone and iPod. They have released an aspirational product, which offers many of the same attractions as the iPhone. The launch of any new Apple device will invariably attract a lot of consumer attention, and the release of the iPad is no different.”

While the release of the iPad has certainly raised consumer awareness, the device itself sits in a separate category from the majority of other devices that will be coming out over the course of this year due to the inclusion of Apple’s own A4 processor. In terms of hardware, we can expect most of the new releases to utilise Intel’s Atom range of mobile processors and to run on the Windows 7 operating system.

Although the development of increasingly sophisticated hardware has gone a long way to foster the creation of a new category, Micro-P’s PC product manager Derek Jones feels that new software has had an obvious effect: “Advances in software have been the prime motivator in allowing a better user experience, and are the main reasons behind the sudden growth in popularity,” he told PCR.

“Multi-touch screens offer a improved user experience over resistive models and have allowed the development of applications designed to be navigated by touch rather than mouse.”

The inclusion of touchscreen support in Windows 7 has been a key development as it has allowed vendors to create solid multi-touch devices without the need to develop dedicated software. The establishment of a standardised multi-touch software interface is likely to have a great effect on the third party software market, and reduces chances of the app market becoming a series of walled gardens.

MARKET SHARE

While the tablet form does offer a number of advantages to the channel, the real measure of success will be consumer sales. If the release of Apple’s iPad is anything to go by – where international sales had to be delayed due to strong US consumer demand – then the segment could prove to be very strong indeed.

Limrick feels the tablet could become the mobile PC of choice for future generations of PC users: “We believe the form factor is ideal for portable PC use. Why waste space with a keyboard when this can be via the touch screen? When we travel we want light, and small devices but with great functionality.”

Although the current generation of tablets are forecast to prove popular with consumers, the likelihood of them outright replacing traditional desktop and laptop PCs is low.

HP’s PR manager for the EMEA Personal Systems Group, Manuel Linnig, feels that the two categories can complement each other: “Tablet PCs or convertible notebooks have been around for some time and are categorised as part of the notebook range. Rather than seeing this as a replacement of netbooks, it’s perhaps more appropriate to say that it’s an extension to the notebook family.”

“Whilst tablet PCs certainly have a part to play in the market, I’m not sure that they will be the main form factor of the future,” predicts McAuley. “They could certainly replace or even complement some other form factors for a significant period of time, but much will depend on the usage of tablet devices and whether they can be perceived as really beneficial to consumers.”

With this in mind, it seems probable that the tablet will take a complementary role alongside desktop and laptop PCs. There are certain aspects to these devices that can never be replicated or emulated by a tablet PC and they can act as a hub for larger files while handling more intensive tasks, like gaming or active downloads.

“I would expect to see some of the netbook business transition to tablet but much will depend on whether the form factor attracts the mainstream market as well as the early adopters,” forecasts McAuley. “Initially I think we will see the tablet as an additional product, especially given that Apple doesn’t currently offer a netbook.”

During the unveiling of the iPad, Steve Jobs indicated that the device would sit in a separate category between laptops and smartphones. But the reality of the consumer market is that most people are unlikely to invest in both a netbook and a tablet PC, so the question remains: will tablets sit comfortably in their own category, or eat in to netbook market share?

“Our belief is this will be a bit of both,” says Limrick. “The portability and size of a PC tablet will see some consumers buying a tablet who didn’t purchased a netbook as the size benefit was not sufficient over the laptop.

“We also believe that some users will see the benefit of space and weight of the PC tablet over the netbook and make the change, thus taking some market share from netbooks. Over time, netbooks and laptops have almost morphed into one – the tablet is a true portable alternative.”

Jones, however, points out that an equally vulnerable market is the emerging e-reader segment: “Tablet PCs will take some market share from netbook, however, most growth will be in the relatively new category of ereaders and portable media devices.”

SOFTWARE PIPELINE

There is a critical difference between the netbook and the iPad. While the netbook functions primarily as a light weight browsing device, the iPad creates a pipeline directly to Apple’s App Store. The only other devices to have a similar style of software distribution are the ereaders, for example Amazon’s Kindle, and it is this business model that has generated such high levels of interest from software developers and media.

“The opportunities for developers are huge as the application store model allows individual programmers to monetise their creations very easily,” observes McAuley. “Many companies are starting to realise the benefits of having bespoke applications which allow them to engage with consumers on the go, albeit for marketing new products or providing additional services. The popularity of the Apple application store has already proven how much demand there is from consumers looking for entertainment or extra features.”

This is the real key to success and – if Steve Wozniak is to be believed – it’s possible that this is what Apple had its eye on throughout the development of the iPad. The device links straight through to its proprietary content download portal, and offers a controlled environment for software developers to offer applications and for media and entertainment companies to provide content.

It is the existence of a monetized and effective software pipeline that will be the measure of success in the tablet PC segment, and it is this business model that makes these devices a truly outstanding category.

Apple iPad: Apple has been the trailblazer in pushing the Tablet category in to the public eye. It’s iPad features a 9.7-inch multi-touch screen powered by the 1GHz Apple A4 processor and offers up to ten hours of battery life

Distributor: Direct

HP TouchSmart tm2-1000: The TouchSmart is another of the hybrid style tablets, however this features the multi-touch support offered by its Windows 7 operating system. It also carries an Intel Pentium SU4100 and utilises the Intel GS45 chipset

Distributor: Bluepoint

Toshiba Portege M750-159: This device is a convertible netbook which allows the screen to be swivelled an folded back on itself to make a tablet. It runs Windows Vista, and carries an Intel Core 2 Duo processor with the Intel GM45 chipset

Distributor: Bluepoint

Acer Aspire 1825PTZ: This device is powered by the 1.3GHz Intel Pentium SU4100 and features a convertible design and an 11.6- inch multi-touch screen. Battery life is eight hours and the system utilises the Windows 7 Home Premium operating system

Distributor: Micro-P

Asus EeePC T91: This convertible device includes an Intel Atom Z520 processor and a gigabyte of DDR2 RAM. It runs on Windows 7 and comes with 32GB of onboard storage with another 500GB of remote storage

Distributor: VIP Computers

Archos 9: With an 8.9-inch touchscreen, up to 120GB of storage, and powered by the Intel Atom Z510 with Windows 7, the Archos 9 offers performance comparable to many laptops. It also offers instant access to a wide variety of internet TV and radio stations and podcasts

Distributor: Micro-P

HP Slate: Leaked specs reveal that this device offers comparable hardware and performance to Apple’s iPad. It has an 8.9-inch multi-touch display, powered by the 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z530 and offers high definition playback as well as forward and rear facing cameras

Distributor: TBC

(note: since HP's acquisition of Palm, the release of the HP Slate has been delayed)

Distributor Phone Numbers

Bluepoint:
0844 571 8001

Micro-P:
01282 776 776

VIP Computers:
0871 622 7500

Vendor Websites

Acer:
www.acer.co.uk

Apple:
www.apple.com

Archos:
www.archos.com

Asus:
www.asus.co.uk

HP:
www.hp.com

Toshiba:
www.toshiba.co.uk

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