Case In Point: Tablet devices (Launch Problem)

Case In Point: Tablet devices (Launch Problem)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

tagged: tabletpc, microsoft, reviews, reaction, iphone, newyorktimes

Why did tablet devices never catch on? What do you need to do with your startup or product for it to catch on?

Photo Credit: Lars Plougmann

A friend sent this review to me:

A New York Times reader sends in his review of Tablet-based PCs haven't caught on, offering 5 reasons:

  1. Lack of Commitment
    No company committed to designing a great product.
  2. Technology: The Screen
    Touchscreens weren't technologically ready and performed poorly.
  3. Technology: The Pen
    Input systems weren't mature enough either.
  4. Price
    They were too expensive.
  5. Input: The Pen
    Current computers are designed to be used with a mouse and it is clumsy to use a pen.
    He points to this as the most important reason.)

I think he's got 1/2 a point right. I think price was part of the problem. But I think he explanation of price is closer to the mark:

"No one wants to pay a lot extra to get a pen, especially when there is no compelling reason to do so," he wrote.

It's that second half that spelled tablets current doom1: "there is no compelling reason to do so."

So, why did Tablets flop?

I'd offer two reasons:

  1. No "killer app"
  2. Marketing Problems

I don't think technology had anything to do with it. I'm basing this on my experience as I've owned 5 Pocket PCs (I started back in the day when they were called "Windows CE", late 90s through "PocketPC" and even through to "Windows Mobile"), and I write this from a Tablet PC (also called a "convertible" since it has a keyboard) while my touchscreen iPhone sits to the side of my desk.

Problem #1: No "killer app"

There never was a compelling reason to use a tablet, like Blickenstorfer. But he didn't weigh this problem sufficiently.

Let me ask you this: Why would you buy a tablet device?

Can you think of a reason?

I didn't think so.

To be fair, there were some cool uses of tablets (from the most useful to the least):

  1. On a TabletPC, you can set up Outlook and Microsoft OneNote so that you can take notes for a meeting by pen (naturally) and it is linked directly to your meeting (tasks too).
    It's slick, but far from a killer app.
    Watch a step-by-step here:
    (Assume that when he takes notes @ 2:00 he is using his pen [which OneNote handles beautifully].)
  2. Windows Mobile's Transcriber solves the small-screen keyboard problem.
    I have never cared for thumboards. They are functional but not nice. But you have this problem of allowing for input in a very small space.

    The Transcriber on the Pocket PC was excellent option. If you were trying to compose an email (or, as I did, take notes in your university courses) it was almost about as fast as typing. (For personal names and mixed numbers and names [like a contact], it was nigh unto useless.)
  3. Diagramming with Visio on a Tablet PC.No this isn't "Microsoft hour". I think it's just that Microsoft, having made the Tablet input, spent the most time and money on making products to show it off.Visio allows you to make flowcharts and simple diagrams. There was something inherently more natural about using a pen to do that. Not much faster, not much easier, but more fluid.
  4. Reading on a Tablet PC.
    If you have to read a long technical document or just read for fun, it is more pleasant to read from a flat device sitting in your lap.
    Any mobile device is better simply by being lighter, but generally I find the screen sizes too small to be as enjoyable.

Do you sense a theme, here? Each potential "killer app" is already solved by something else - and the new solution is incrementally better, not an order of magnitude better. And what you need to get attention is an order of magnitude - to be so much better than the alternative that people can't help but use our product.

Problem #2: Marketing

Let me ask you this: Did you ever hear about a "Tablet PC"?

Yeah, no. You might chalk this up to "lack of commitment" but I think it stems from Problem #1. Microsoft and manufacturers created ads2, but no one talked about them and they didn't catch on.

Let's look Apple and the iPhone. Is there marketing there? Sure is (remember the launch-day lineups?).

And that is one tablet / touch device that is getting traction


If you don't have a great reason for someone to buy your product and talk about it and care, they won't.

Problem #1 for a new company or product: getting people to care.

Links & Notes

  1. Well, not doom. But rather the non-success of mediocrity.
  2. This ad is recent, but it still lacks "he killer app" explanation:
    (I can't help but watch the first minute and wonder why they are trying to compete with well, paper.) It all goes downhill from there as he gets all geeky talking about "chemical strengthening", "plastic substrates", "durakeys", "shock tests", and "energy star ratings".
  3. The image at the top of this post is an Apple Newton next to an iPhone. The Newton never caught on, the iPhone is (so far).
    It is still early in its life, so we'll see where it goes.
  4. Yup, I've said this before: Technology is not what makes or breaks startups.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009, 9:56 PM

tagged: tabletpc, microsoft, reviews, reaction, iphone, newyorktimes