With all the buzz around the iPad and the slew of tablet designs we expect to see at CeBIT this year, it is clear that there is a looming battle if not an all-out war brewing for this new category of devices. The question, however, is where tablets fit into the overall consumer market. I believe that there certainly is a market and a fit for these devices in consumers' lives. I also believe that there are particular elements of computing that will be better on a tablet form factor then on a mobile device or a PC. For example, watching movies on a device more portable and with better battery life than a notebook certainly has value. The web in portrait mode definitely makes many web sites feel more consumable, particular ones that require a lot of scrolling like news sites. But one of the primary opportunities for the tablet that I think will shine lies with the publishing industry.
Can the Tablet Re-Invigorate the Print Publishing Industry
It would be hard to argue that the publishing/print industries are in a period of industry-wide transition. This transition at its most fundamental level is one that has been catching industries off guard for several decades: it is the transition from analog to digital.
In many of our presentations to clients in the tech industry, we point out that this transition from analog to digital is a good thing, and if harnessed correctly can mean substantial opportunities. This we believe is the case with publishing.
The Internet has been called the demise of many things and many claim it is the cause for the decline in print media consumption. There is some truth to this, however, I would argue that a more fundamental barrier has kept the publishing industry from breaking new ground. That barrier is the book (as we know it today) itself. Let me share some statistics from Parapub, a publishing industry research organization:
1. Generally 80% of US households did not buy or read a book last year.
2. 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the past 5 years
3. 42% of college graduates never read another book after college
4. 1/3 of high school graduates never read a book for the rest of their lives
5. 57% of new books are not read to completion
Since we can generally agree that the vast majority of US adults can read (at what grade level is debatable) then the question becomes why aren't more Americans hooked on the completely immersive experience of reading a good book?
Some answers could be that people do not have enough time to sit down and read; or that TV and the Internet media are more interesting, entertaining, and captivating than reading a book. These are all reasonable observations and to the intriguing question of why so few American adults take the time to sit down and get engrossed in a book. However, I think the issue is deeper.
So what is a book? This, I think, is an excellent question. If you look at any dictionary's definition of a book it almost always includes the word "printed," and I believe this is flawed. The answer, in my opinion, is the creative use of words in order to captivate and/or stimulate the reader. Perhaps this definition doesn't work with text or resource books, but I feel there is potential for innovation there as well.
The opportunity staring the publishing industry in the face is the opportunity to re-invent the way they create and distribute their content. We have seen a quick glimpse of this with the Apple iPad and the NY Times application which according to them is "the best of the times and the best of the web" in the same experience. We need more publishers thinking like this.
So how do tablets fit in?
The tablet form factor is the most logical platform to have the best experience with this new class of content, as well as become the platform of choice for many mobile computing tasks. The PC is great for a lot of stuff, and so is the mobile phone. Similarly the tablet will be better at some core computing tasks then both of those platforms, and add a new element of mobility and form that the notebook can not. It may very well become the best mobile platform for watching movies and video, surfing the web, viewing and sharing photos, reading and learning, gaming, and anything else that can leverage the kind of hardware we will see flood the market. For many it may become their preferred mobile platform and perhaps for many it may even replace their notebook.
One other implication the tablet manifests is for Netbooks. I have been skeptical of Netbooks for some time despite the growth they have had, which I feel was short term and is now showing evidence of slowing down. Tablets, and in this case the iPad specifically, deliver a superior experience in every aspect to which the Netbook was considered valuable. It is a better web browsing device, because with Netbooks the screen is to small. The difference maker for me in this regard is the web in portrait mode vs landscape mode. The tablet really shines here because the web in portrait mode is incredibly compelling.
Think about this: On my 15-inch MacBook Pro the NY Times website is about four full page scrolls from top to bottom. This is even worse on a Netbook, yet with the iPad I saw nearly the entire NY Times page in portrait mode with almost no scrolling, with the added benefit that using your finger to scroll is much more pleasant and natural then a mouse or trackpad. Tablets are also a better video watching device because Netbooks are underpowered and often require media co-processors to do so. Tablets also provide better battery life and mobile form factor then both Netbooks and Notebooks when it comes to video. Netbooks, I believe, evolve into a new notebook form factor and Tablets step in and take their place in the market.
So what about the Kindle, Nook and Sony Reader? Although there may be a place for stand-alone e-readers as well as other stand alone devices, I feel that the market at large will evolve to include more of these rich media experiences. The kind of experiences necessary to grow this tablet category will require a processor capable of graphics and rich media. Nvidia's Tegra chip has been gaining a great deal of momentum in this category due to its extremely capable video, graphics and mobile web experience. Many companies in the ARM community are focusing on this market exclusively and Intel intends to focus some of their Atom efforts on tablets as well. Due to this momentum I can assure you we are going to see a great deal of innovation and experimentation around this form factor.
The most important point, however, may not be that the tablet as a platform represents the next generation mobile reading, video watching, internet browsing, gaming, picture viewing, and audio playing device. The most important point may be that with the tablet each of those superior mobile experiences exist on the same platform.