The Tablet Graveyard

The tablet wars have yet to be decided, but so far every iPad killer has ultimately met with failure. Even in the smartphone space, despite Android’s lead, every study found that iTMS’s AppStore collects more money than competing digital stores. About the only thing you can say with certainty is that UNIX derived mobile operating systems (mOSes) have won the first battle in the mobile space. Why is this? Taking a glance at the history of mobile computing tablets gives us some clues…

While Apple is following its usual pattern of appealing to the higher end of the market and people that value qualitative aspects of devices, the non-Apple mOS products are racing to the bottom in a war that is getting quite interesting. There are “Cadillacs” in the mobile phone space, but the tablet space is another beast entirely. The tablets released at the same price point as an iPad have met with bleak sell-through figures. HP threw in the towel with its WebOS tablet. Blackberry’s Playbook met with disappointment and general indifference. Samsung, a leader in many consumer electronic spaces, is facing an uphill battle against the 300 billion pound “iBranding” gorilla in the corner. How did we get from Apple being a minor player to Apple being the player to beat? I could list all of Apple’s build up since the acquisition of NeXT. Apple capitalized on a string of successes based around their ease-of-use principles.

By all accounts, Steve Jobs had the idea for the device that eventually became the iPad long ago. But before the iPad was a huge success, there were so many failed tablet attempts that Halted could probably dedicate an aisle to them. Here’s a short list of the ones I saw come and go: Microsoft Tablet PC: 2002. Windows XP Tablet PC Edition: 2001. Apple Newton line: 1993-1998. Penpoint OS: 1991. Windows for Pen Computing: 1991. GRiDPad: 1989. Why did the iPad succeed and become the model that showed how to make a tablet?

Technological hurdles with making a hand-held computer not withstanding, there were conceptual failings all around. Aside from the battery, connectivity and processing limitations, the biggest problem was how mobile computing was perceived. The biggest problem was that computer companies considered one market: business and priced accordingly. It didn’t seem to occur to them that people might want to use their mobile devices for other things. I might scoff at paying around $1000 for a mobile for myself, but there were companies paying 4 figures per device that were close relatives of the first Pilot just a 4–5 years ago.

With the aughts (‘00s) came WiFi, color screens, low-power ARM processors and longer battery life which made mobile computing seem inevitable. In the early aughts, Microsoft trumpeted their tablet initiatives but each one was still making the same mistake. Repeatedly, Microsoft tried to squeeze a desktop OS into a tablet form factor without significantly modifying the UI to accommodate the new environmental conditions.

There were other conceptual problems as well. One problem was the target market of business users and the premium prices devices made for them can command. Businesses can generate a lot of money if you give employees a way to work more efficiently. However, despite their buying power businesses tend to be notoriously conservative and will use a technology until forced to upgrade. The bigger the business, the more set in their ways they are. As an example, I once heard about a technician that made a call to a client that encountered an acoustic coupler in 2008. This is an extreme example, but for the techs out there, how many people can think of a few businesses that are still running Windows XP. To put it in perspective, in another few years XP will hit puberty.: Windows XP had its 10th birthday in October 2011, and I forgot to get it anything.

In cases where you don’t have to justify the added expense of utilizing mobile computing, the business has to have a workforce that (a) needs a mobile information device, (b) can use it effectively, and (c) is paid enough to warrant spending money to save them time. So you’ve got a conundrum. Emergency services, construction and maintenance workers could certainly use the information mobile computers provide, but they do not usually have the training to effectively use data systems. Businesses are unwilling to risk dimes by training them to save dollars. Considering the circumstances, it was obvious the revolution would have to come from the troops and not the generals.

Steve Balmer proclaimed that people want to use styluses more than their fingers shortly after the iPad came out. He was using Microsoft’s F-U-D strategy to promote Windows 7 for Tablets. After seeing this interview (fast forward to 1:45 and 2:28), it was pretty apparent why. Conceptually a stylus is less than optimal because it takes a few seconds to get out. Styluses were easy to lose, and the worst part was that you had both hands full while using pen-top devices.

Considering all other companies’ failings, it was conceivable that a company that historically strives to push new technology into the mainstream would be the one to show everyone the way to making mobile appeal to the masses. Instead of trying to squeeze a complete desktop paradigm into a handheld device they rethought the interface completely. The iOS UI guidelines are an interesting read. While I do not agree with all of them, I do like much of what is said. Just as Apple reinvented smartphones just 5 years ago, they’ve reinvented tablet computers, or will we just be calling them all iPads in 10 years?

(This article was written mid-November 2011 and updated to reflect industry changes.)

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