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The start of the end for tablets?

A 'must have' on everybody's list, tablets are seeing a dip in their popularity. This exciting product needs some rescuing if it has to fend off challenge from phablets, sleeker notebooks and other hybrid devices, says Rajiv Makhni.

brunch Updated: Dec 21, 2013 19:58 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times

Tablets came in riding an unstoppable stallion of brute force sales and fantastic customer demand. A new category in technology usually takes time to mature and create universal demand, but tablets were a whole different ball game. While they had been around for a while, it took the curation and tweaking of Apple to make it into a consumer product that was usable on a daily basis. And from there the market exploded.

Tablets became the hottest category in tech, every company had a serious portfolio, it appeared on everybody’s wish list, it took on the role of the second tour de force of devices after phones, and turned out to be one of the biggest contributors to many a company’s bottom line. Tablets were ‘King of the Hill’ and were expected to fuel both growth as well as become an integral part of the ‘must have’ circle of devices for everyone. It was predicted that every person on the planet who had a phone would also eventually have a tablet. Until something very strange happened in 2013.

Sharing notes: Comparative stories of life with an iPad compared to life with a MacBook Air 11 or a Lenovo Yoya 11 (above) were starting to get serious traction

The two news snippets above weren’t a very big surprise to those that had been tracking consumer response to tablets for the last few months. There was a general sense of lag and fatigue in the market around tablets and most of if it was coming from the users themselves. The favourite question, which tablet to buy, was suddenly disappearing off discussion forums, the crowds around the tablet section at retail stores were thinning and the general euphoria around new tablets was that much lower. And while it seems shocking and a bolt from the blue, there wasn’t really a mystery as to why it was happening. Three serious reasons were at play.

The most vilified and most terribly named device on the planet was proving to be the biggest phenomenon of 2013. Yes, big screen phones were the butt of a lot of jokes and were also written off by a lot of experts in 2012, but customers responded by plonking money down and picking them up in droves. Today, every flagship smartphone announced by any company has to have a big screen with a mind-boggling resolution.

While this leaves some people quite frustrated (it’s very tough to buy a top-of-the-line phone in a size that is easily pocketable), widespread consumer demand and fantastic sales numbers have made this an unbeatable category. And an unexpected ripple effect of this is the realisation that a big screen phone with a fantastic resolution negates the need to buy a separate tablet. In fact, the ‘tablet’ experience on a 6-inch+ smartphone with a full HD screen is remarkably better than what you can ever get on a 7 or 8 inch tablet with a middling resolution. Plus Phablets are that much more portable and easier to carry around. Strike 1 for tablets, especially the smaller ones.

Hybrids and Thin, Sleek devices

Clunky to carry: To get some real use out of their tablet, users were buying Bluetooth keyboards and carrying them with the tablet

While tablets were on the rise and posting phenomenal numbers, laptop and notebook manufacturers weren’t sitting idle. Notebooks became thinner, lighter, gained fantastic battery life, better screens, hybrid form factors and awesome ergonomics. In fact, the difference in size and weight between a tablet and a thin and light notebook was almost negligible. Most people carrying a tablet were strapping on thick padded protective covers to make sure the tablet survived its daily adventures. And to get some real use out of their tablet, users were buying Bluetooth keyboards and carrying them with the tablet too.

This made a tablet more unwieldy, thicker and gain more weight than a thin and light version on its own. Plus a sleek notebook already has a cover and keyboard built in. The resurgence of notebooks and the rediscovery of the pleasure of having a device that has everything built in and doesn’t need fiddly moving parts to make it efficient and usable made larger tablets look very clunky. Comparative stories of life with an iPad compared to life with a MacBook Air 11 or a Lenovo Yoga 11 were starting to get serious traction. And the notebooks were winning. Strike 2 for tablets, specially the larger ones

Sea of Sameness

Nothing new: All tablets looked the same, they did almost the same things, they were still primarily to consume content and not create it

Many other reasons contributed to the waning tablet demand. Foremost was the price equation. Tablets have always had a better price point, but mature buyers were starting to realise that this was an illusion of epic proportions. For a tablet to be a serious computing machine, you needed to buy something top of the line and with the most built-in storage your money could buy. Do a price comparison of a MacBook Air 11 with a 128 GB iPad Air and the price story starts to take a very different turn. Also at play was a lack of innovation. A tablet buyer of 2012 was given very few reasons to upgrade to a 2013 tablet. They looked the same, they did almost the same things, they were still primarily to consume content and not create it, and no jaw-dropping, must-have feature had been brought in by any company. Just a little thinner or a tad faster processor or a slightly better screen resolution wasn’t going to cut it. Plus, one of the biggest questions I asked all through 2012 became an epidemic in 2013. “What can I really do with my tablet?” was largely unanswered this year too. A sea of sameness and lack of innovation was strike 3 for tablets in 2013.

Do I really believe that tablets are about to die? I would love to close melodramatically and say yes, the beginning of the end is here. But that would be premature. We have enough smart people in the tech industry to make sure that a cash cow as big and as profitable as tablets doesn’t start spiralling down towards irreversible doom. Tablets were a fascinating and very exciting category, and every one behind them should start realising that and bring them back into that mind space. I for one, would be thrilled for the industry to get me to change my tablet. It’s three years old and I haven’t had a single reason to upgrade yet.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3.

From HT Brunch, December 22

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First Published: Dec 20, 2013 18:30 IST