So, When Do The Tablet Wars Start?

The iPad is a true phenomenon, selling around 70 million units since launch and projected (by Gartner) to reach up to 169 million units per year by 2016. It has demonstrated the consumer (and, potentially, business) desire for a simpler device that delivers a fantastic media “consumption” experience in conjunction with simple yet compelling apps.

Android tablets and Windows 7-based tablets have also been around for some time, so you’d have thought that the tablet “war” would have started already. Not so much. There have been a couple of false starts: the Samsung Galaxy Tab, BlackBerry PlayBook, and HP TouchPad — the latter two briefly even outselling the iPad in certain segments/markets, but only after “fire sale” discounting — have all been heralded as serious challengers but have failed to make an impact. These were certainly no more than “skirmishes” rather than an all-out war.

The Amazon Fire made some inroads in Q4 2011, extending the firm’s e-reader device line, but this seemed to wither on the vine in Q1 2012. New devices like the Asus Transformer and second-generation Samsung Galaxy tablets seem to be better received, and Google’s own tablet may arrive soon. These will, doubtless, cement Android’s position (based on cumulative sales) as a significant second-place player. But the tablet war won’t really heat up until Microsoft hits the market with both Windows 8 RT and Windows 8 tablet devices.

Microsoft needs Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT to work straight out of the gate.

Windows RT on ARM architectures will provide a proper Metro-driven, Windows-like tablet — one better than those cobbled together with Windows 7 to try and keep business clients from buying iPads — and at a price point (hopefully) comparable with other tablet offerings. Meanwhile, if you need real Windows on a tablet with proper backward compatibility, Windows 8 tablets with x86 architectures should arrive at around the same time. Pricing on the latter is likely to start high and then trickle down as component prices drop; it’s also where we’ll see interesting “hybrid” devices like laptops with touch screens and tablets with slideout keyboards.

It’s a bold move and, arguably, one that Microsoft should have made last year; Windows RT will introduce a lower-cost iPad competitor with a good user interface (UI) and some legacy compatibility (for Office docs), but it may end up as just another Zune HD — superior to the iPod in terms of hardware and UI but gaining zero traction in the market. Similarly, Windows 8 tablets could be far too expensive; if they cost more than a decent laptop and iPad combined, it’s hard to envisage rational IT managers or brand-conscious consumers opting for the untried tablet.

Perhaps this is why forecasts from the likes of Gartner and DisplaySearch see iOS as the leading tablet platform all the way out to at least 2017, with Android only gaining ground slowly and Microsoft performing poorly (according to Gartner) or atrociously (according to DisplaySearch).

It’s too early to call a winner in the long term.

The truth is that with no international market for the Kindle Fire yet, only rumors of the Google tablet, and no pricing on details for either flavor of Windows 8 tablet, it’s too early to announce the winner of this war. Apple heads into the conflict with tremendous momentum and economies of scale, but the same could have been said of Sony, Kodak, or Atari in the past. The key questions will be:

  • Who will deliver a tablet that supports those neglected usage scenarios (transactions, work stuff, communications)?
  • What will be the difference in price points between Windows RT devices and entry-point x86 Windows 8 tablets? Will all Windows 8 tablets be “transformer” or hybrid models that have slideout keyboards . . . or will there be a mainstream, pure tablet offering based on x86 architecture?
  • How long will there be manufacturers with feet in both the Windows and Android camps? Will we see this breaking down, as per today’s “PC manufacturers” and “smartphone manufacturers”, with just a few firms (Samsung, Apple, Sony) being global players in both?
  • Who is going to explain to the poor consumer standing in a PC retailer the difference between and unique benefits of: 1) a traditional notebook running Windows 8; 2) an Ultrabook with a touch screen running Windows 8; 3) a tablet running Windows 8; 4) a tablet running Windows 8 RT . . . even before we factor in Apple devices, Android tablets, hybrid Android devices, and Chrome OS laptops!

The Future Of The Digital Home

(see the previous 3 posts for background; part I, part II, part III)

Is the concept of the digital home redundant now? Have events bypassed “something that never was”? No. While the need for a self-contained system in a consumers home with storage, intelligence and management may have been superseded by high bandwidth / availability broadband and cloud services, the things that I believed consumers would need from digital services, devices, and applications are still true — and in many cases still haven’t been provided by today’s technology.

Future trends that fall under the “digital home” umbrella include:

  • The fight for “aggregation hubs.” Streaming services have made an impression, and the seamless delivery of content — ranging from e-books to videogames and device applications — now happens as a matter of course. However, these services are still fragmented; a range of suppliers (Amazon, Steam, iTunes) requires different interfaces and supports different client devices. Global titans like Google, Apple, Amazon, and even Microsoft want to bring all this together via individual or household user accounts that tie together all your legitimate movies, music, applications, and e-books. The successful firm becomes a trusted resource for the consumer — and can corner the market in upselling or advertising to them.
  • Network refinement. Wi-Fi still isn’t the networking nirvana that device makers would have you believe; at the very least, it can be complemented with other technologies like NFC, Bluetooth, or 4G, and perhaps even those low-power technologies like Z-Wave and ZigBee will finally come good (although I’m not holding my breath!). But as we reach a point when gigabytes of data could be moving to and from devices in the home on a regular basis, Wi-Fi may hit its capacity limits. Shifting to a powerline-based network or wired backbone may be the only way to keep up with traffic demands.
  • Storage and application migration to the cloud. Today’s browser-based applications and social networks already run across multiple devices without ever leaving the cloud, but traditional applications will increasingly do the same — be it Office 365, photo-editing packages, or gaming via OnLive or Gaikai. The advantages of online version control, storage, subscription models, and easy sharing make the locally installed software package look increasingly redundant, while the lack of optical drives in devices like Ultrabooks or tablets makes installation from disk very tricky. Online storage is already going this way as Dropbox, SkyDrive, iCloud, and Google Drive compete for consumer attention.

Even without these specific areas of focus, there is still mileage in the concept of greater inter-operability between devices and services – maybe Microsoft Research is on to something with its HomeOS, but this would take many years to achieve a critical mass.

Whatever Happened To The Digital Home? Part III

(carrying on directly from my previous post)

Stuff that didn’t even occur to me:

  • Tablets. This isn’t a great shock; forecasts and models are all based on evolutionary change to existing ecosystems and technology. Apple’s iPad success was a revolutionary change that no analyst could have predicted. Interestingly, the iPad is a sort of half-way house between the old PC-based home and the potential digital home, offering an easy-to-use, flexible consumption device that hides all that techie stuff. It helps that in iTunes, Apple has delivered the equivalent of another concept in the report: the third-party media/content aggregator.
  • Social networks. Like tablets, the rise and rise of the likes of Facebook, and Twitter has fundamentally changed consumers’ relationship with their home technology. A PC, TV, or mobile phone in the home is now merely a gateway to accessing friends and the wider community rather than a solution in itself. Arguably, this is a far healthier relationship, aside from the desperate need to communicate absolutely everything, obviously.
  • The move to web-based services and then back to apps. This is an interesting one to consider; as a consumer technology analyst, I naturally expected digital home experiences to be delivered via installed software — software that was perhaps even installed at the factory for devices like TVs. The growth of Flash, HTML5, Ruby on Rails, etc. meant that many services and experiences were delivered via a browser. This makes sense in retrospect: once a compatible browser is available on a device, a service becomes available with very little (if any) tweaking — much better than having to rewrite for every architecture or operating system. More interesting still is the reversal of this trend as app stores and downloadable apps for phones, tablets, and PCs aim to “monetize” consumer service delivery; you lose some of that web browser compatibility if you code directly for iOS, Android, or Windows, but you gain consumer engagement (and, potentially, direct revenue).

(I’ll finish off this series of posts with a look to the future — is the digital home a redundant concept?)

Whatever Happened To The Digital Home? Part II

(carrying on directly from my previous post)

Things that failed or haven’t happened yet:

  • Video chat. While Skype and its competitors have done very well on PCs, it’s still not the ubiquitous video chat (via TVs, phones, game consoles, etc.) that I had envisioned and that would get us beyond today’s tech-aware audience and into every home. It will be interesting to see where this goes in the future as Microsoft adds functionality to Skype.
  • Centralized storage. I’ve used NAS devices and home servers for nearly a decade, and this may have blinded me to the fact that most consumers still rely on local PC/phone storage for sole copies of their content — with perhaps an external hard disk for back-up if you’re lucky. Conceptually, the idea of a dedicated storage device on the home network is still the sole preserve of techies and content hoarders; arguably, the window of opportunity for folks like Netgear, Synology, and QNAP to engage with a more mainstream audience is closing, as online storage services like Dropbox, SkyDrive, and Google Drive will eventually render local storage redundant. Additionally, the need to generate storage efficiency has decreased as memory costs have plummeted: in 2004, a 250 GBhard disk cost $250 according to this great cost comparison; you can now get 3 TB drives for much less than that if you shop around. This has meant that building several gigabytes of storage into every device (phone, DVR, TV, camera) is easier and more cost effective than having a central store — even if this does lead to massive duplication and version control nightmares.
  • Voice control. This idea was thrown into the mix to spice it up, as consumer-based voice control seemed fairly unlikely in 2004. Sure enough, there still aren’t any convincing multi-device voice control technologies in people’s homes, but we’re not far off in terms of the underlying technology — Xbox Kinect and Apple’s Siri are starting to show that this kind of thing can work in a limited capacity.
  • Connected appliances. We’re still no nearer to the “Internet-enabled fridge” than we were back in 2004. The downsides of high cost, long replacement cycles, and perceived lack of utility still outweigh the potential upsides — the kitchen sees the most traffic in the house, it’s a good place for a Wi-Fi router, and it offers appliance maintenance benefits. The recent failure of Chumby — with its cute connected display/alarm clock/app store that failed to find a market — demonstrates the risks associated with razor-thin hardware margins. But there is still hope: the excitement around the Nest Learning Thermostat last year and the potential applications of maker-type technology like Raspberry Pi or Arduino in this space means that we may yet see dumb technology replaced over time.
  • That “brain” to manage the digital home. As storage has become super cheap and Wi-Fi the near-universal networking standard, the management of more centralized storage and more complex networks hasn’t really been needed. Add in the growth in streaming to individual devices — effectively a point-to-point delivery from the content provider — and the intelligence needed to manage the digital home becomes redundant. The closest we have to this today is Apple’s device and iTunes ecosystem; loading multiple devices, managing streaming, and offering (for the more technically minded) network back-up solutions, it has become a default “brain” for those buying into an Apple-centric home. Again, more intelligence management would allow better back-ups, more seamless content sharing, and fewer “Why won’t video X play on device Y?” frustrations — but it’s difficult to see who would provide this now that so many devices manage their own connectivity and content.

(next up; what was unanticipatable when the digital home concept was first created)