Talk of a smaller Apple iPad this fall is the latest media frenzy, but the more interesting issue is if Apple, Google and Microsoft will be able to find the proper balance between smartphones, tablets, and PCs. Success means not only selling all three devices -- rather than just two -- to consumer and business users, but securing enough market share for long term profits.
At this point, the smartphone appears to be the most mature of the devices. Users want something that will easily fit into a pocket, but with a large enough touchscreen for viewing web/cloud content on the go. Its Achilles' heel is battery life, with video and/or 4G usage resulting in a search for a power socket before the end of a typical day.
Enter the battleground of the tablet, where Apple's current 9.7 inch (diagonal) iPad is squaring off against smaller, lighter, seven inch offerings from Amazon and Google on the low end and the forthcoming Microsoft Surface and laptops on the higher-end. The wider screen of the seven-inch tablet makes it a better platform for reading or viewing videos than the smartphone, but not as good of an experience for video compared to a nine to 10 inch tablet. If you're talking about mobile videoconferencing, the larger tablet size beats any smartphone hands down in terms of both user interface and battery life.
Take the factors of better battery life and user interface together and you can quickly see how a typical consumer might want to carry around both a smartphone for voice calls and quick-and-dirty web access in combination with a tablet for more enjoyable media consumption at home and on longer trips away from home.
Where the Apple iPad and Android me-too offerings have fallen short is for the business world that needs mobile workers to be able to effectively work on the trifecta of documents, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. Apple's biggest failing for the business world was its inability to support a pointing device for mouse/touchpad usage in the implementation of iOS, leaving an opening for Microsoft to roll in its Surface Tablet later this year. The Surface integrates a keyboard and touchpad into its cover -- a powerful feature for anyone who plans to do work while on the go, be it the business man or the college-bound student.
Apple's failing, plus a lack of support for Adobe Flash, has left many mobile workers -- including myself -- to go back to Ye Olde laptop or more modern Ultrabooks. If I was buying a tablet today, I'd be sorely tempted to get a smaller one to check up on e-mail and entertain myself on longer plane flights to complement my tablet. I love the allure of Ultrabooks, but they're too expensive for my taste, while I still have a working (but heavier) laptop.
When Microsoft Surface arrives, the question will be is if its keyboard/touchpad is a good enough user interface to replace a laptop/ultrabook for mobile workers. I suspect it will, but it opens up another question -- what kind of computer do you keep at home? Will Surface be powerful enough to suffice as a full-spectrum replacement for a dedicated desktop machine, able to seamlessly interface with large screen displays, keyboards, and local storage? Or will there still be a need for a PC, perhaps a Microsoft-re-imagined version that gets rid of towers and more compact offerings?
Google would have you believe that the stepping-stone past the tablet is the Chromebook -- basically a netbook/laptop with everything stored in (Google's) cloud. However, the Chromebook assumes always-on, always present high-speed bandwidth, and that's an assumption that seems to have fallen flat.
Regardless of what devices shake out, the overarching issue is for Apple, Google, and Microsoft to get users embedded into their content ecosystems for the purchase of apps, books, music, and video. In this arena, Apple has a key advantage through iTunes content effectively "wiring" in user. The cost of switching ecosystems might turn out to be very expensive if you've got a lot of content under one and can't easily switch to another.
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