NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, April 2012
Commentary: President's Corner
By Greg Skalka,
President, Under the Computer Hood UG, CA
An End to the “Tablet Takeover?”
September 2011 issue, Drive Light
president (at) uchug.org (click to email author)

August was an interesting month for computer news. First we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the IBM PC. Though “personal” computers were already available, when the IBM PC came on the market on August 12, 1981, it started the adoption of this technology by business and individuals. A week after the PC anniversary, HP announced it was discontinuing its TouchPad tablet and apparently abandoning the tablet market. Sales of the $499 device touted as an “iPad killer” were slow until they were given a close-out price of $99, at which point they flew off the store shelves. Finally, the mastermind behind the iPad, as well as iPod, iPhone, iTunes and most things “i”, Steve Jobs, stepped down as Apple iPhone, iTunes and most things “i”, Steve Jobs, stepped down as Apple CEO for medical reasons. Apple’s ailing founder will remain on the board, with his recommended successor, Tim Cook, at the helm.

All these events make me think the predictions of the death of the PC and the takeover by tablets are at least premature and possibly downright wrong. Traditional computer manufacturers have seen a slip in sales and have been working on their own tablets, but I think a device that has lasted 30 years in the market is not ready to be replaced yet. Tablets bring a lot of great features to the table, but they appear to be more of a niche performer. The current tablet craze may well turn out to be similar to that of the netbook a few years ago, introducing a new kind of computing tool that adds to the arsenal, but cannot supplant the traditional laptop and desktop.

I do believe the tablet computer concept is a good one, so much so that I bought one. Though I call my Velocity Micro Cruz Reader a poor man’s iPad, it is really just an e-reader that can surf the web, get email and display color pictures and video. At only $120, it is certainly not a substitute for a laptop PC, but to me, neither is a $500 iPad nor other manufacturer’s similar Android tablets. The 12.1” Asus eeeSlate tablet PC, which has an Intel Core i5 processor and runs Windows 7 might be a substitute for a traditional PC (with the tablet’s external keyboard), but it also costs $1000. To take a bigger chunk out of the PC market, tablets will have to be lower in price. To take over the PC market, they will have to be as capable as a laptop or desktop, a tall order for a device based so much on portability.

Right now, the notebook computer or laptop is the king of computer value. The current back to school advertisements show a lot of capable laptops (even with Intel Core i5 processors) for around $500. There used to be a premium paid for the mobility of a laptop as compared to a desktop PC, but now a similar desktop setup costs more. Since 2005 there have been more laptops than desktops sold in the U.S., and at our Microsoft Store tour last year their staff reported laptop sales at 80% of the total computer sales. Those economies of scale in manufacturing have no doubt allowed laptop prices to be reduced below desktop prices.

At $500 for a decent laptop, a $500 tablet computer does not make much sense, either as a substitute or complement to the notebook PC. This was certainly proven out by the HP TouchPad being discontinued. HP had problems selling them at $500, but one can only wonder how many could have been sold for $99, were they willing to manufacture more at a loss. The correct price point to me for tablets would seem to be no more than $250; that is where the Barnes & Noble Nook Color (Reader Tablet) is priced. Amazon would do well to keep that in mind if the rumors of a future emailing and web surfing Kindle are true.

How does Apple sell so many iPads for $500 or more? I think there must be a lot of people out there with more expendable income than I have. I admit I’ve never used an iPad, and don’t know anyone that has one, but based on experience with those I know that own the iPhone, the iPad is probably quite good as products go.

Apple’s products are usually innovative and ahead of their time, and remind me of hybrid and electric vehicles. They are technically advanced and forward thinking, copied by their competitors and carry a premium price, but often don’t make economic sense initially when compared to existing products. There will soon be a lot of electric and hybrid cars on the market, but they are all so expensive that unless gas gets well over $5 a gallon, a conventional gasoline-powered economy car is still a better overall value.

I was able to participate in a GM-sponsored event this month in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot, where I got to drive a lot of different new cars (with no sales pressure). The Corvette and Camero were fun to drive, but the most interesting ride was undoubtedly the Chevy Volt. In my opinion it blows all the existing and near-term hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles away. The Volt is a plug-in electric car (wheels driven by electric motors which are powered by a battery charged by external 110 or 220 VAC), but it also has a gasoline-powered generator to provide electricity for driving when the battery is low. Unlike the Nissan Leaf, a plug-in electric with no gas engine, the Volt can be driven across the country like a gasoline-powered car if there is no time or place to plug in. Unlike the Toyota Prius hybrid which can’t be recharged from external power, it can operate on battery alone at all speeds for trips within its battery’s range. The Volt is the future for electric cars. No matter how much I like it, however, I’d never own one, because they cost $40K. They can call me when they get the price down to $25K.

Apple can call me when they offer the iPad for $250.

The tablet’s strength is in bringing portability to web access and graphical media. Without a real keyboard, however, I can’t imagine using any tablet as my primary computer. Writing this column on a touchscreen would be a big pain; the times I wrote it in a car on a laptop were painful enough. I admit I once thought a laptop keyboard was a lot harder to type on than a full desktop keyboard (and I don’t do touch typing). Now of course a lot of businesspeople use a laptop as their primary computer. I know typing a lot on my netbook is a pain, and its smaller display screen makes for difficult reading by older eyes; a tablet computer display would be similar. While I suppose I could perform graphical tasks like photo and video editing, create large documents or file my tax return on my netbook, I wouldn’t want to if a computer with a larger display was available.

In my view, the tablet PC is good for consumption of media (photos, videos, music, web pages), but its smaller screen size and lack of a keyboard make it less useful for the creation of such material. A tablet might be acceptable for email, but it wouldn’t be so great for creating an important document like a resume. The market for tablets will thus be limited to content consumers, while content creators will still prefer traditional PCs.

The final problem with the tablet’s takeover is its competition from the smartphone. While portability is the tablet’s big advantage over all forms of the traditional PC, the smartphone has it beat there. You can carry an iPhone in your pocket, but you need a case or bag to take an iPad.

While I’m hoping the tablet continues to develop and evolve as an alternative computing platform, especially if it can come down in price, I don’t see a way that it can take the place of the laptop or desktop computer in general business or personal usage anytime soon.

And I’d like to remind those of you out there with Apple stock that the company did not do so well between 1985 and 1996, while Steve Jobs was absent. His shoes will be hard to fill.

Click here to return to top