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.

sk

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

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7 Responses

  1. Have to confess I also doubted we’d see such explosive growth. And we’re definitely well beyond early adopter territory now. Our latest stats (Essential Eye, May 2012) show 17% tablet penetration, and we’re already at 11% in the group we define as ‘late majority’.

    Games console adoption is an interesting comparison but I think an even better one is laptop adoption. Laptops went from being the domain of businessmen and wealthy students to being ominpresent in the average UK living room, in the space of just a few years. In many ways they’ve started to shake off their work associations. We now see 55% of UK adults using a laptop while watching TV in the past week. (Essential Eye, May 2012.)

    Next, a key factor will be the fairly crappy build quality of the average laptop. If we assume a typical lifecycle of around 3 years, we’ll see more and more laptops giving up the ghost or grinding to a halt in the next year or two, and mainstream consumers will wander into PC World to be confronted with walls of tablets priced around the £300 mark or just under. I’m pretty sure we’ll see a tipping point in adoption in the next 12 months. Will be interesting to see whether the e-reader market continues to grow at such a pace, or whether we’ll see increased convergence between the two devices (and why not?)

    S

  2. Simon, have a look at the following video (in Dutch, with subtitles) and the appeal of tablets becomes immediately clear:

  3. Thanks for the comments and video. It is an interesting point about laptops shaking off business connotations – surely that will be critical in whether people decide to purchase a laptop or tablet as a replacement device. Laptops are still best for emailing/writing/office-based tasks, but tablets rule on snacking and consumption.

  4. […] Will the general public become tablet owners? […]

  5. I guess I’m way out of the loop. I still don’t own an iPod, iPhone, or iPad and while I do own other devices, I’m still not interested in a tablet. I’ll gladly work on my ultrabook and then relax with no tablet in my hands.

  6. Terrific post, Simon. I shared your skepticism but eventually bought an iPad just to find out what all the fuss was about. There’s no doubting it’s a beautifully-conceived device and just works. At work it’s also helping start wean me off my over-reliance on paper. But for all the stand out apps there’s a cast of thousands in terms of poorly executed ideas (just to tag on to the app goldrush) and equally poorly-conceived business models. There’s also too little innovation from competitors. Apple’s market dominance is guaranteed for as long as the competition chase the me-too bandwagon. Meeja people at the best of times are disconnected from their audiences and the number of people in the industry who think that those with iPads are representative of a more general audience are just deceiving themselves. I believe the general trend towards portability will create a broader demand for tablets, but like the marrying of the web and TV, it’ll take many failures before we get to something truly dynamite. Keep up the great work on the blog – my first read tonight and look forward to seeing more.

  7. Only a matter of time. We (UCAS media) have just surveyed first-year students in the UK and just under 20% of them own tablets. This has increased from 12% the year before. (My grandma also has an iPad3 and loves it)

    I think 1-in-4 18-24 year-olds will own a tablet device within the next year. that’s pretty mass market…

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