Are tablet computers a bitter pill for netbook makers?

2 Sep 2010

Just moments before the debut of the iPad, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, asked the audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco a question: Was there room for another category of device between a smartphone and a laptop?

While he acknowledged that some people would see that as being the netbook, he dismissed this idea. “The problem is netbooks aren’t better at anything,” said Jobs. “They’re just cheap laptops. We think we have something better.”

Fast forward to four weeks after the iPad’s release date and it had already sold 1 million units. And the figure keeps growing as each month passes. Other companies have taken note and are starting to make tablets of their own, such as the HP Slate, the Dell Streak and the Asus Eee Tablet.

Tablets to outpace netbooks

According to Forrester Research, in the US, the tablet will outsell the netbook in 2012. By 2015, it will be the second-highest selling product category, just after notebooks. The same research shows that while the netbook’s sales percentage will stay steady, it will be pushed into the lowest-selling product category in the next two years. What does this suggest for the future of the netbook?

Ian Pearson, futurologist at BT, believes there may not be a place for the netbook anymore.

“The market’s been consistently small all the way through until the last couple of years and then it slowly increased a little bit,” he says.

Pearson believes that, with conventional notebooks covering more powerful activity, and with tablets combining the ability to conduct lower powered activity with portability, the tablet may easily succeed in edging out the netbook.

“If the tablet’s got a high specification and has everything you can imagine and it’s also lightweight and fits easily in your briefcase or your handbag, why would you want anything else?”

However, Mark Herbert, head of Laptops and Accessories at Carphone Warehouse, doesn’t think the tablet has all the answers.

“With a netbook, you’re using a standard operating platform, whether it is XP or Windows 7 or a variant of Vista in some circumstances. It has the full range of offices apps and it’s very easy to use,” says Herbert. “It’s down to a choice. Not everyone uses touchscreen devices. Take the mobile phone market, for example, there’s a clear choice there between a touchscreen handset and a handset with a physical keyboard on it. And that will be the same between a netbook and a tablet.”

The tablet computer market

Right now, the tablet market is only beginning. The iPad currently has a monopoly in the marketplace. And while many other computing companies are aiming to launch tablet hardware as soon as possible, according to an iSuppli report, the iPad may not see any viable competitor until at least 2012.

The research is based on how the iPhone didn’t have any real competition until 36 months after its release, which was seen mostly in the shape of the Motorola Droid and the HTC Eva 4G.

Pearson, however, disagrees with this long-term view. “I’d be very surprised if it is as late as 2012. I would expect that by Christmas of this year we’ll have a few iPad competitors on the market. Certainly, in the middle of next year we’ll have quite a lot of them around.”

Herbert also believes that viable competitors are on the way very shortly.

“I think at Christmas you’re going to see a lot more manufacturers coming into the range. For example, at the IFA in Berlin (taking place today), there are actually six manufacturers announcing their release dates for tablets this year,” he says.

One thing is certain – the tablet is becoming a huge contender in the personal computing market. More companies are focusing on developing and improving this technology, solidifying its position as the future of mobile computing.

A tablet for every room

Pearson believes that in the future, the tablet will be the staple of every room in the house.

“You might have one or two of them lying around the kitchen, using them for recipe tablets or fridge front messaging tablets, as well as a couple on the coffee table for browsing magazines, a few in the kids’ bedrooms for browsing the net and playing games on,” he says.

“Of course they aren’t going to do that while they’re several hundred pounds a piece.”

So, perhaps it may be premature to assume that the netbook will be rendered extinct right away?

While early adopters may see the tablet as the next big thing in portable computing, it can take quite some time for consumers to accept the new technology and to make this future a reality. Time will tell how relevant the netbook can remain in the computing world.