The tablet market is growing and changing faster than any I can ever remember. Almost every *day* there’s an important announcement. The change seems way faster than PCs in the 1970s-80s, for sure. Is there something more going on than just the introduction of another computing device?
I’m beginning to think so. Steve Jobs apparently thought so, too, reportedly calling Apple’s iPad the most important thing he ever did. Obviously, it’s way to soon to guess how that will play out, but maybe we can learn something from history.
A Historical Pattern
If you look way back in time, let’s say about 4,000 years ago, you’ll find another tablet, one made of soft clay, written on with a stylus. We still have tens of thousands of these tablets (as well as cylinders, etc.) that were dried and became permanent records. It was a standard technology for a long time, along with the various cuneiform scripts that could be written on them.
Perhaps nearly as old an invention, but slower to gain widespread use, were scrolls made of papyrus developed in Egypt, and parchment, or dried animal skin, more commonly used elsewhere. These were a standard technology of the first millennium B.C. - starting, perhaps, 3,000 years ago.
Then about the first century A.D., a book form of paper or parchment known as the codex came into widespread use, its popularity spurred by the growth of Christianity during the same time. Another major leap forward, about 2,000 years ago.
Considered in light of this historical pattern, one can’t help thinking that Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press, about 1450, was late in coming. Why didn’t this invention occur earlier, perhaps in some other place noted for its printing or learning, such as Japan or Baghdad?
Well, apparently it did - ironically about 1041 in China, origin of so many inventions, by a printer named Bi Sheng. But the technology didn’t catch on until Gutenberg’s improvements four centuries later. What an incredible lost opportunity - and maybe a lesson to all of us today that we shouldn’t accept the recurrently-popular notion that everything has already been invented!
The True (?) Significance of Tablets
So the thought that keeps occurring to me is that tablets aren’t just a new computing device. Rather,
Tablets are the latest leap forward in a long-running trend of innovations that occur about once a millennium. They are the new paper, re-invented once again.
Now I know others have said things like this. There’s so many computing inventions nowadays that really are, in many ways, profound. I even used to have a book from Microsoft declaring CD-ROMs to be ‘the new papyrus’. But consider these claims anew in light of this long-running historical trend. And there’s something else unique about tablets, something we didn’t see with other technologies, and certainly not with CD-ROMs:
Tablets - especially the iPad, but not only the iPad - are selling like crazy. Even by computer industry standards, the adoption rate of this new technology has been phenomenal: among consumers, business and students. Sales of the iPad have made it the fastest-adopted new consumer electronics device in history, surpassing the DVD player.
At lower price points than the iPad, Amazon’s Kindle has also been a strong seller for several years, and even Barnes & Noble’s Nook and newer Nook Color have done surprisingly well.
Competing in the Tablet Market
Because Apple has such a lead with the iPad, which is selling at huge volumes for a new device, the price to stay in this game has gone way up. Amazon has obviously just placed its huge bet on tablets, pricing the new Kindle Fire at $199, quite possibly below cost.
To compete, makers will have to produce huge volumes to get unit prices down enough to reach competitive price points, and likely be willing to take losses on these huge volumes for an extended period. It’s easy to see how many companies may be second-guessing staying in the market, and for many an exit, or better yet a collaboration, will indeed be the right move.
But for the really big players in information technology and publishing, can they afford to view tablets as a niche market, or merely an extension of print?
Is paper a niche product?
Amazon seems to have come to this realization recently, as they now have rushed their first color tablet to market, and are widely believed well along in development of a more advanced unit. They simply could not be left dependent on Apple’s tablet, and Apple’s sales fees for books sold on it. Is this situation any more tenable for other big booksellers and publishers? Barnes & Noble’s main retail competitor, Borders, has now disappeared, having lacked its own website and tablet that B&N has.
The Need for a Tablet Strategy
In light of all this, and considering they had the well-regarded WebOS, it’s hard to understand how a company like Hewlett-Packard could just give up on tablets - if they have. Could you imagine an office machines company of the past, like NCR, IBM or Xerox whose machines didn’t handle paper? It was the standard medium of the time. They didn’t have to own paper mills, but they had to have enough control of the medium to be able to get it to do what they wanted.
So how far into the tablet market does a large computer or publishing company need to be? How much control of this new medium is necessary in order to stay relevant? Those are questions impossible to answer clearly at this point, but IBM sure wouldn’t have gotten far if its Social Security check writing machines had to pay 30% of every check to a competitor.
I can’t help wondering if HP’s decision to exit tablets and WebOS, along with the PCs that could also run it, will be reversed. Already HP’s CEO has been dismissed, and an extra production run of TouchPads ordered.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch the tablet market over the next few months. Barnes and Noble will likely make the next move, and then Apple is rumored to be preparing to introduce an iPad 3 early next year. In the mean time, a dozen or more also-ran Android tablets, as well as Blackberry’s Playbook and many others will be vying for life this Christmas season. I’m sure quite a few won’t be around a year from now, or else be acquired, possibly by non-computer companies determined to have some control over their future.
Have we seen the last major entrants by now? Who knows? Microsoft’s and Google’s plans still seem fuzzy, but in any case we can be sure the bar will continue to be raised at a fast clip.
I hope it’s clear that any major tech, publishing or other media company without a tablet strategy is playing with fire, of the old-tech sort. It will be interesting to see if HP does dive back in, making the major commitment needed to stay in this market. Are there intellectual property obstacles in their path? In any event, Jeff Bezos has placed his bet, and Barnes & Noble has received a $204 million capital infusion from Liberty Media that should finance further Nook development.
Unlike a lot of contenders, HP has a real long-term chance of winning a fair share of the tablet market, and even leveraging WebOS to move further into phones with the Palm Pre line, and to plot an escape from Windows on the desktop. I’m sure there’s many reasons not to take the leap, but on the other hand, who can afford to say no to a once in a millennium opportunity?