Defining Tablets – The Three Ringed Circus

Market researchers need to define what features make a workstation more than a PC, or a ‘smart’ phone more than a feature phone, if they want to size and forecast their markets. In the case of tablets there are significant challenges as these products are the conflux of a number of different products, business models and technologies. As in these other areas where comparative features play a part it is possible to define a number of sufficient (rather than necessary) tablet features, but we will need to revisit the issue regularly as the products evolve.

Tablets – Are A Convergence Of Three Separate Markets

We believe that tablets come from three separate markets (see Figure 1). Apple’s massive success with its iPad followed many years of partial success for PC suppliers following Microsoft’s introduction of touch screen versions of Windows XP. Even before that, dedicated data entry terminals used styli for signatures.

These three areas have developed in different ways and have differences in the ecosystems which support them. In particular:

  • The most defining feature of the PC in the role they play as tablets is their operating system, whether Windows, Mac OS or Linux; PC offerings developed from standalone desktop machines into workstations and laptops – most running Windows, but some with Apple Mac OS, some Linux variants, Google Chrome and cut-down versions of these ‘horizontal’ products on PDAs; some IP phones have PC-type operating systems, while digital signage and internet TVs have inbuilt processors and PC-type GUIs; the PC ecosystem is relatively open and subdivided into a number of areas, with little interaction between hardware, software and services suppliers
  • Phones have developed from wired to wireless (unlicensed spectrum, such as WiFi) and mobile (licensed spectrum, 2/3/4G) – and from analogue to digital; they are by their very nature connected devices, and have evolved into tablets by expanding on the camera and MP3 playback of feature phones to accommodate PDA functions and (increasingly) touch screens; portable gaming consoles and iPods represent something of an overlap with the ‘dedicated consumer device’ area in the use of Internet connections; mobile phone companies were traditionally separated from software companies; Apple’s rise has demonstrated the advantages of a more vertically integrated approach than before
  • Dedicated consumer devices come from the digitisation of popular analogue devices such as cameras and TVs, a movement described by some as ‘the consumerisation of IT’; as in the other areas there has been an evolution of wireless products; on the business side there have always been dedicated input devices such as dumb terminals and now thin clients; the development of motion controllers in the gaming console area are likely to continue to influence tablet designs; they are a variety of horizontal and vertical integration practices in this area, with TVs and gaming consoles standing at different poles

Current tablets can still be linked back to one of these three areas for their origin – Apple’s iPad uses its iOS operating system and therefore is very different from its PC offerings, as are the numerous tablets based on Google’s Android operating system; PC tablets from Fujitsu, HP and others have the same rich general purpose values of laptops, albeit with keyboards replaced with touch screens; Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader clearly comes from the dedicated consumer device area, combining the digitisation of physical books with digital ink. It is probable that tablets will always be linked to their sub-markets (smart tablets, PC tablets and dedicated-function tablets), although common OEM platforms for suppliers to customise for dedicated use will probably become more important over time.

Tablet Usage And Feature Definitions And Directions

There are a number of features and usage aspects of devices that make them ‘tablets’, which we’ve captured in Figure 2.
Looking at each in turn we can differentiate between necessary and sufficient issues and look at how things are likely to develop. In particular:

  • Input Type – the incorporation of touch screens allows smaller form factors, although this is not necessarily a defining aspect – Kindle for instance lacks this facility; future directions will no doubt see motion controllers from the gaming market and speech recognition, as in Apple’s latest iPhone, being adopted more widely; eventually some tablets may go beyond touch
  • Connectivity – tablets are almost always connected via either wireless or mobile comms; they go beyond PDAs, which typically use WiFi, PC synchronisation and downloaded programmes to function; the extensive use of streamed apps makes some tablets less useful when not connected; the introduction of 4G will no doubt increase the functionality of tablets, although its adoption will also be disruptive (T-Mobile’s sale to AT&T in the US and partnership with Orange in the UK are signs of uncertainty in infrastructure investments)
  • Power – tablets are almost always battery powered and so subject to the technical restrictions of acceptable minimum times between recharge; in future both solar and self-powering motion tablets will be developed, although the need to fit high specs into small mobile form factors will also push the development of more powerful and energy efficient batteries; wireless recharging will reduce the need for cabling for many devices
  • Processor – almost all tablets use ARM processors, although Intel proposes its Atom chip as an alternative; AMD is also investing in BlueStacks – a venture-backed company working to run Android to x86 processors; in future we are likely to see a wider choice of chips and a move away from the general purpose requirements of the x86 instruction set, which are hungry in terms of electricity demands
  • Screen size – tablets can be differentiated from smart phones by their screen sizes; small screens are difficult to read and to fit space for touch screen keyboards; we will see a movement towards larger tablet screens; it is debatable whether large screen sizes of 17” and above are appropriate for tablets; as touch screens demand significant amounts of the power envelope they are likely to remain small, although large enough for video content viewing
  • Producer/Consumer –locally installed software use is a feature of PC tablets, although most packages still require keyboard and mouse input; smart tablets are mainly used for content viewing; use is moving towards automated interaction between apps and involuntary user activity; the centralisation of applications is driving up the number of servers and storage systems implemented by suppliers used to serve tablet users
  • App Download – there are restrictions on the location from which apps can be downloaded for those tablets which come from the phone market; the use of a suppliers app store is similar to the gaming console market, but very different to the PC area; while the use of HTML5 will ease the use of apps via the browser and suppliers such as Facebook will develop integrated apps, in future there will be increasing challenges to fully vertically-integrated approaches from EU anti-trust and other legislators; if Microsoft can be forced to separate its Internet Explorer from Windows, so tablet suppliers can rightly be targeted for their numerous restrictive practices

Tablets – A Taxonomy

All things considered we propose the following as an initial taxonomy for tablets and associated devices:

  • Smart Tablet – a mobile client device with a smart phone operating system (such as iOS, Android, Blackberry) connected via wireless and/or mobile comms
  • Feature Phone – a mobile phone including digital camera and MP3 playback facilities connected via mobile and/or wireless comms
  • Smart Phone – a feature phone with additional features such as an advanced operating system, touch screen, PDA functions and app store
  • PC – a computer based on a x86 processor and running Windows, Mac OS or Linux operating systems
  • Tablet PC – a PC with the addition of a touch screen and the removal of keyboard and mouse – a convertible is not a tablet in our view
  • Dedicated Client – a device designed to perform a single specific function (such as ebook reading), hardwired connections (such as thin clients), or application specific activity (such as gaming)
  • Dedicated Tablet – a mobile client device retaining the specific function of dedicated clients; it is not a necessary definition of these to be touch activated, although gaming tablets have the most advanced motion control and interaction with associated apps

We will of course need to keep revising the specific definitions over time to accommodate the development of new features and usage models.

Some Conclusions – The Influence Of Age, Wealth And Privacy On Tablet Success

For as long as traditional content creation from installed remote programmes is required, the PC market will remain strong. However there is a shift in usage of devices based on the growing proportion of ‘digital natives’ in society. Those who were born after the mobile phone, PC and gaming console were invented arguably have less difficulty in adopting tablets than those of us who have had to learn each time what each new type of offering does.

The greatest influences on tablet adoption and their ability to eclipse other devices types will be linked to these younger users no doubt. Even if the cheapest tablets are priced at $99, most tablets are high-priced consumer products and their use will be restricted to those with greater disposable budgets – more so in the transition period when most families will have both PCs and tablets. The tablet market is also likely to be adversely affected by the inevitable privacy wars on the horizon: there are many revelations and legal cases ahead when users young and old discover the extent to which their personal information is being bartered and exchanged between unknown suppliers.

Tablets are important client devices and we intend to go on to size, analyse and forecast the market in depth.

I’d like to thank Pim Bilderbeek and Marcel Warmerdam of METISfiles who have contributed to this article.

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About Martin Hingley