Where do tablet computers fit? a smartphone, tablet, netbook freeforall

Recently a client asked me if the venerable ‘desktop’ was going away… and if/where the new tablet devices fit into their business model? Here are some of my thoughts…

Two thoughts on ‘desktop’ PCs and ‘tablet’ PCs that continue what you discuss…

  1. A ‘desktop’ is ‘general general function’ machine. In the early days of computing, computers came in two categories, dedicated function and general function. The best example of dedicated function early on were ‘database machines’ that were optimized for database functions and were stripped of everything else… they would not do graphics or word processing… just fast, efficient database. On the other end of the continuum were ‘general function’ machines that would do pretty much anything you could put into software and hardware, but were not optimized for anything in particular. Your desktop will play your CDs & DVDs, play games, do your word processing, spreadsheet, retrieve and answer your email, access the internet and much much more… but it comes (for the sake of expandability and flexibility) in this big old box. Additionally, for the sake of low price, everything it does is farless than optimal (especially those cheap speakers that render even the finest music into noise). I refer to the desktop as a ‘general general function’ machine because markets have moved into specialization among ‘general function’ machines in areas like: gaming, graphics, home theater, entertainment, connectivity, portability… and many more. These still do almost all the functions, but the prioritize some at the expense of others (so a tablet can still do word processing, but the lack of a physical keyboard will make it challenging)… so now we have ‘specialty general function’ machines that compete with ‘general general function’ machines for certain functionality… and as you point out, desktops are not going away, but if someone wants to watch a movie on a long flight, one of the options is *not* a desktop. So, for some functionality, the desktop functionality is being extended/expanded by other devices or replaced by other ‘specialty’ devices… My transportation metaphor for the ‘desktop’ is the ubiquitous ‘minivan’… but that is another discussion…

    tablet target and function
    tablet target and function
  2. Among multiple ‘specialty general function’ devices, which cover the most functionality and provide the most utility (and have an efficient footprint)? Demand for functionality (computing services) is what drives platforms… for years I have struggled with my personal ‘mobile office’ devices. This was because I kept on wanting additional functionality but did not want to add more and more to the number of devices and the size and weight of the devices and support equipment.
  • First it was a cellphone (a dedicated function machine) and a big clunky laptop (a portable general function machine
  • second was a cellphone (dedicated), a PDA (dedicated) and a laptop (portable general)
  • more recently the cellphone (dedicated- multi purpose) expanded to do the functionality of the PDA (dedicated), but for any real input/output I still needed a notebook (portable general)
  • now, I have graduated to an Android smartphone (Gingerbread- very portable general function) and find that there are times when I do not need to pack the notebook (portable general)
  • the question now becomes: will a tablet (more portable general function) squeeze out the notebook (portable general)? …and the answer today is ‘no, not yet’ because there are processes where I need a real keyboard, some specific attachments and some substantial processing power which have been optimized out of the tablet for size and weight and power conservation… but that does not suggest that those features might be available with some creative/innovative tablet in the near future

I was really struck with a discussion between Charlie Rose and Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn)  (probably this interview, but I am not positive)… where Charlie asks Reid: how many cellphones do you carry? Reid said “three” and Charlie said “me too.” Both carried phones for just regular phone calls (dedicated), one for PDA functionality (dedicated-probably Blackberrys) and one for surfing the web (dedicated use although general in design -iPhones)… This strongly suggested a portable device space that was definitely “in transition” and probably “in consolidation.” I think the recent explosive growth of iPhones and Android phone (now about 3/4 of recent smartphone sales) is evidence of this consolidation. Just how that transition/consolidation ends nobody can say for sure… there is no precedent in history that we can learn from… and you cannot really ask the users because ‘they don’t know what they don’t know.’ All that I do know is that users will continue to pull functionality off the ‘desktop’ platform onto other, more user friendly and functionality optimized platforms. Will that cause people to slow down their purchase of ‘general general function’ machines? Probably. At what rate? I don’t know, but that market and segment uncertainty (plus the hiring of a software CEO) has HP bailing out of the mobile device market (wasn’t that a shocker)…

Sooooo, when you only had one compute device, it needed to be a ‘general general function’ machine and it was (until about 2009) a desktop. Since then notebooks have been the larger seller because it offered portability. As less expensive and smaller devices work to expand their functionality and services, the buying public has platform coverage choices. Sure ‘desktops’ will have a smaller slice of the ‘general function’ market… Now as for tablets, how, exactly they will fit either into the space between smartphones and netbooks and notebooks is largely unpredictable… the one phenomenon that we have seen with tablets is the boom of entertainment (movies, video, magazines, music…) on the tablet platform. Whether that will last or will be captured by other devices only time will tell… How big a screen will I be willing to carry on my phone (the move from 2.6″ to 4.3″ was just fine)? Will larger netbooks be popular (my Rotary Club just purchased 16 that I specified for grade school student awards)? One thing is for sure the push to expand the power, the scope and the functionality (turf) of existing platforms (specialty general function machines) will persist… Let the battles begin!


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