Tablets: RIP?

By Doug Miller

Being constantly connected is critical for my work so when I was leaving for a 4 day business trip recently, I looked at my arsenal of devices and selected a range of connectivity solutions that would give me lots of options for keeping in touch. As I walked out to the door to the airport, I had the following in my carry-on bag:

  • An HTC Titan II Windows Phone with LTE on AT&T’s network which also was enabled as a mobile wireless hotspot when needed.
  • A Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 Android-based tablet with LTE on Verizon’s network and also capable of being a mobile wireless hotspot.
  • A small Acer notebook computer running Windows 7
  • An Intel-based tablet computer running Windows 8 RTM
  • A 3G USB stick that connects to AT&T’s HSPA+ network which can be used with either of my Windows devices
  • A Sprint 3G/4G Overdrive portable wireless hotspot device

I have a first generation, WiFi-only iPad but decided to leave that at home.

So what did I find worked best to keep me connected?

Mobile Device Polarization

As I went to various meetings during the four days on the road, I was consciously keeping a tally of how I was staying connected while also watching other business people to see what they were using. What I noticed for myself was a definite trend of using my smart phone for most quick tasks such as checking email, looking up directions, viewing a map or making a call and then using my notebook PC with one of my mobile connectivity options for almost everything else. I did use my tablet to read a Kindle book on the plane but otherwise I found most things I would normally do on a tablet could be done just as effectively on my big smart phone. As I looked around I started to notice that I was not alone in this trend. Lots of smartphones, some tablets being used to read books or watch movies on the plane and lots of laptop form factor devices for real work. These laptop devices were typically PCs or Macs but increasingly I am seeing people use iPads with a loosely-connected keyboard as a cobbled-together laptop.

So this raises the question: will keyboardless tablets fade in popularity as smart phones push up from the bottom with larger screens and touchscreen-enabled laptops with removable keyboards push down from the top?

To answer this question or to try and predict the future, it is worth considering the following:

  1. A smart phone with a large screen, good productivity apps, fast connectivity to the web and great performance is an incredibly useful device. Every time I reached for one of my tablets or my PC, I asked myself, could I do this on my smart phone. For most tasks, my Windows Phone was able to do what I needed in seconds without having to pull out and turn on another device.
    But no matter what size phone, I think I would still boot up my PC device to do anything that required extensive typing or involved a more complex app.
  2. In my opinion, there are three things that make the iPad really popular with business users: long battery life, continuous connectivity (if you have the 3G or LTE models) and instant on. Yes, it is also portable but so is a small notebook PC. PC and Mac users have been frustrated in the past because these devices did not have great battery life, they took many seconds if not minutes to “wake up” and they weren’t always connected to the net – you had to find a hotspot to check your email or browse the web. But imagine a laptop form factor device that addressed these three short-comings. In my case, I am close to that now. My PC typically gets about 7 hours battery life. I have my power settings set up in such a way that it “wakes up” in seconds not minutes. And by using the wireless hotspot capability in my smart phone, I am connected to the net in seconds. Plus I have the advantage that I have a real keyboard for doing serious work. However, it still isn’t as convenient as wiping out an iPad. But things are going to change in a big way over the next few months.
    Some of the new Windows 8 devices will be a radically different than previous Windows devices. There will be powerful, lightweight devices with long battery life, instant on and options for built-in connectivity to cellular data networks. Plus you have devices such as Microsoft’s Surface that blur the line between tablets and PCs by having a removable keyboard and a touchscreen. While the jury may be still out regarding how users will react to Windows 8, there is no question in my mind that these devices will be a major disruptive force in mobile computing.
  3. So are iPads and various Android-based tablets doomed? Almost certainly not since there are a wealth of apps for these platforms and lots of fans of Apple or Android devices. Plus as we have seen with the insane rush for users to upgrade to the iPhone 5, there is an almost irrational force drawing customers to Apple’s products. But for business users, the combo of a really good, highly-functional smart phone and a very portable, always-connected Windows 8 touchscreen notebook that has all the attributes of a tablet but also has a real keyboard may raise the question: going forward, do I really need a separate tablet as well?

Will Apple Change?

So does Apple see the world going this way as well and will they change? Yes and no. For example, the iPhone 5 does have a larger physical screen which give more real estate for apps. The additional of LTE support also brings the iPhone into the same speed league as leading Android and Windows Phones. And of course, you can use an iPhone as a mobile hotspot. So there is no question the iPhone 5 will meet the needs of smartphone business users.

However, the iPad still does not have an official Apple attachable keyboard that allows users to convert the iPad into a laptop, similar to the way the ASUS Transformer or the Microsoft Surface works. And yet, I see lots of iPad users in business meetings with third-party keyboards that provide this functionality. When I ask users why they don’t just use a MacBook Air or Pro, surprisingly I hear a lot of Apple users say they like iOS but don’t particularly like OS X. So they would rather use a cobbled-together iPad laptop than use a real Mac laptop. Some users, such as my blog mate Jeff Gould, have a MacBook Air but run Windows 7 on the device. Go figure.

If the Microsoft Surface and other Windows 8 offerings from PC manufacturers that feature detachable keyboards really take off it will be interesting to see if Apple responds with the same concept in the next rev of the iPad. I’m betting they will.

On a final note, the rumors concerning the iPad Mini introduce a new wrinkle into the mix. Has Apple finally decided to address the 7 inch tablet consumer market in order to give its fans absolutely no reason to look at a Kindle Fire, a Nexus 7 or a Galaxy Tab? Or will they surprise everyone and come out with a “phablet” that also has cellular calling capabilities like the Samsung Galaxy Note and again go after big screen smartphone business users? I’m betting this product is more focused on consumers but we’ll have to wait and see.

Some final thoughts

A couple of final observations.

  1. Having a mobile wireless hotspot has really made a huge difference to how I use my PC. I have been using a Sprint 3G/4G Overdrive for almost two years but it now feels antiqued next to the capabilities in smartphones that have built-in wireless hotspots. The Sprint device takes minutes to boot up and has very poor battery life. Plus the “4G” network, which is really Clearwire’s WiMax network, is becoming more and more unusable. My Sprint contract is up at the end of this month and I won’t be renewing.
    With the Windows Phone “internet sharing” feature, you turn it on when you need it, it takes seconds to fire up, it is super-fast on LTE or even HSPA+ and it surprisingly doesn’t have a huge impact on battery life. These features are now standard on iPhone and Android LTE devices as well. Just make sure it is covered in your data plan – which it is with both AT&T and Verizon’s data sharing plans – and make sure you have enough data in your plan to cover connected PC use.
    So without the dedicated hotspot device, I have one less device to put in the bag and keep charged up.
  2. A mobile data USB stick for your PC isn’t a bad alternative although with these you need another device on your cell plan and it is another device to keep track of. I’ll be using my phone as a mobile hotspot going forward so there is little reason to continue using this device.
    Again, one less device in the bag and one less data plan.

As I have said before, the next couple of months will be very interesting. Despite all the patent lawsuits, there has never before been so much really new innovation from so many players in the connected mobile space.

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