Will the general public become tablet owners?

Way back in January 2010, I wrote a blog post entitled “The general public doesn’t need an iPad“. I felt that the iPad would struggle to achieve mainstream success as it was a disruptive technology that people had little reference to – it was competing with something that didn’t exist rather than something inferior. Furthermore, I argued that none of its features were truly unique, and that the functionality could be enjoyed using other devices.

Since then?

“U.S. tablet usage hits ‘critical mass,’ ComScore reports”

“iPods changed the media industry, iPhones ramped even faster; iPad growth leaves siblings in the dark” – Mary Meeker.

Tablets have been more successful than I envisaged.

However, we’re not quite in “mea culpa” territory yet. Comscore’s stat is among smartphone owners, not adults, while the iPad has benefited from iPod and iPhone’s introduction and success – from production and distribution mechanisms to consumer desire of the Apple brand. Also, just because last year saw x% growth doesn’t mean this year will see x% growth. And finally, semantically, people still don’t need an iPad. People just want one.

Tablets aren’t mainstream. Yet. Could they be?

Potentially, the main barrier to tablets becoming mainstream is category distinction. There is a dotted line going from the iPhone’s 3.5 inch screen to the Galaxy Note’s 5.3 inches to the Kindle Fire’s 7 inches to the iPad’s 9.8 inches to the Galaxy tab’s 10.1 inches. With the Asus Transformer Prime paving the way for touch-screen laptops, tablets could get squeezed between smartphones and next generation computers into oblivion. The battle could be less about size, and more about open vs closed ecosystems.

But if the tablet market stabilises at one or two form factors – say 7 and 10 inches – could it achieve mainstream success? Possibly, though I think game console ownership could be a useful comparison point in that tablet computers are desirable but not essential.

Their desirability stems from their usage occasions, which is the key component I overlooked in my 2010 post. Tablet use does not compete directly with phones (out and about) or computers (largely fixed location at home/office) – instead they are used primarily in the living room, bedroom and on holiday (Source). Why is that?

  • Living rooms are a social space. The tablet is the most social device – it is tactile and better than either a mobile or laptop for showing and sharing
  • Living rooms are dominated by the television. The tablet is the best device to switch out of standby and begin browsing or chatting – whether as a companion experience or independent to the viewing
  • Living rooms are a place of relaxation. Casual gaming is now huge. Angry Birds on a tablet is a far better user experience than on a phone (particularly for the less¬†dexterous), and casual games aren’t as visible on laptops
  • Bedrooms are for preparing for sleep as well as sleeping. E-readers and tablets are fundamentally changing the book-reading industry (and potentially the newspaper and magazine industry, though I think this will be more difficult given that a book is a coherent narrative, and newspapers and magazines are great at editing disparate content)
  • Holidays and travel in general require equipment that can do as much as possible in as little space as possible. A tablet is ideal.

All of these functions can be performed by phones, laptops or traditional media but the tablet hits the sweet spot. Hence penetration grows, and with the introduction of the Kindle Fire, Nexus 7, Surface etc it will continue to do so for a while yet. Though I’m still not certain tablets will become mass, they can certainly become mainstream.

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Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pswansen/5680074913

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