Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins made quite a bold prediction regarding the future of tablets today (Courtesy Bloomberg) –
“In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore,” Heins said in an interview yesterday at the Milken Institute conference in Los Angeles. “Maybe a big screen in your workspace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model.”
At first glance, it seems to be wishful thinking. The CEO of a company that failed quite spectacularly in the Tablet Market (with the Blackberry Playbook) assumes that –
- In 5 Years there won’t be tablets. Though the precise statement he made was – In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet.
- Tablets themselves are not a good business model.
It’s interesting that Bloomberg didn’t choose to mention –
- The amount of profit Apple is making from the iPad.
- Whatever amount of money Microsoft is making from Android Tablet makers (Patent Licensing Fees).
- Whatever amount Google is making from iPad users and Android Tablet users via search revenues.
Surely, those are all ‘good business models’?
The Blackberry CEO’s statement seems like the Fox saying the Grapes are Sour and He never wanted them anyways.
Here’s the problem though – Tablets have never really had any Unique and Irreplaceable Function.
First, let’s try to play Devil’s Advocate and figure out if the Blackberry CEO’s wishful thinking might be closer to reality than we realize. Then, we’ll look at the opposite argument and see if Tablets have a very long future. Finally, we’ll look at whether Kindle Fire can survive or not.
What if the Blackberry CEO is right and Tablets won’t have a reason to exist in 5 years?
Here are a few points to think about –
- Apple made the Tablet Market viable. However, before that we had Microsoft and others (including Apple themselves, with the Newton) try and fail to make Tablets a viable market.
- No one is quite sure what Tablets’ unique irreplaceable functionality is. This is getting even harder to figure out now that Phones are getting bigger and bigger.
- Tablets don’t really have any ‘Killer App’ that makes them irreplaceable.
- Phones are much better for portability. Laptops are much better for ‘doing things’ when mobile. Desktops are much better for doing ‘intensive tasks’. Tablets are consumption oriented and mobility enhancing – However, phones and ‘Phablets’ are quickly becoming a viable alternative.
- What if Apple had simply become very good at creating ‘technological fashion trends’ and iPad was a supreme demonstration of that. What if the iPad and the subsequent success of 7″ Tablets and the iPad Mini are just a ‘technology trend’ and not some great step forward?
Perhaps the most striking thing about Tablets is that they are, for lack of a better word, a luxury. Could you survive without your phone? Probably Not. Without your Tablet? Sure. The inconvenience of not having a Tablet to browse stuff on while watching TV is not that big an inconvenience (contrary to whatever our first world problems obsessed minds might think).
There is no equivalent to ‘making a phone call’ for Tablets. Nothing that’s ‘absolutely necessary and no other device is as well made for’. Watching Netflix on the couch doesn’t really qualify as absolutely critical.
In terms of the future, the most dangerous threats for Tablets are –
- Larger Phones. Now that we’re getting into 5.5″ and 6″ screens, what real difference is there between Tablets and Phones?
- Projection Screens and New Screen Technologies. The minute someone makes a viable screen (perhaps a pico projector based screen projecting technology), Tablets suddenly lose their one big advantage over phones (a larger screen size).
- Things like Voice Based computing and Gesture Based Computing also threaten Tablets (for the exact same reason – Tablet’s only real advantage is screen size).
- Wearable computing like Watches and Google Glass are a threat.
- As laptops become thinner and lighter, and (perhaps most importantly) get better battery life, they are a threat.
- Hybrid devices like Microsoft Surface are a threat. Of course, if you love Tablets you could claim Surface is an evolution of the Tablet and not really a separate device.
- Most of all, the ‘technological fashion trends’ are a threat. My guess would be that at least 50% of Tablet owners bought a Tablet due to non-enduring factors such as ‘buying the new, new thing’ and ‘coolness’ and ‘showing off their financial means’ and ‘buying it because everyone else is buying it’ and ‘because it’s more convenient for some stuff than laptops’. If Apple were to come out with an iWatch, or if Google Glass were to become the ‘new, exciting technology’ – What real reason would these people have to buy Tablets in the future?
What are we driving towards?
The realization that Thorsten Heins may or may not be right in saying – In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore.
However, we can’t really answer the question – What REAL reason do we have to have Tablets right now? Are they simply the result of Apple becoming super good at selling people stuff that makes them feel good and in possession of ‘technological coolness’? Are they simply a transition phase (like Netbooks before them were) to a more convenient personal computing device?
If we don’t have any REAL reasons, even right now, for Tablets to stick around. Well, then who knows what might happen in 5 years. Odds are that Tablets will become quite a bit less relevant.
Reasons why the Blackberry CEO might be wrong and Tablets might stick around for 10-20 years
There are actually quite a few good reasons that Tablets might stick around –
- The Momentum. We have a lot of Tablet sales plus we have lots of people who’ve been in the ‘I want a Tablet but can’t afford one’ bucket. It might take 10-20 years to fulfill that EVEN if much better technologies come out and make Tablets redundant.
- Worldwide Expansion. Tablets are still spreading. It’s worth nothing that there is one argument here in favor of ‘Tablets are going to go away in 5 years’ i.e. Tablet buying is limited to certain demographics and is not very widespread in countries where Tablets are popular.
- There might not be a new ‘super strong technological fashion trend’. Steve Jobs isn’t around to make iWatch or Google Glass or Talking iUnderwear the new must-have device. Who’s going to convince people desperate to find meaning and coolness from meaningless devices and Prada belts that this new Technology X is going to make them feel good and special and rich and beautiful (as Tablets supposedly make them feel)? Where are the cool dancing happy people convincing them to buy Technology Y? The Surface Ads do try. Wouldn’t that be crazy – Microsoft setting the new fashion trends in devices and making Surface RT the new conspicuous consumption flag bearer.
- Tablets might be the sweet spot for the 80% of the population that just wants to consume technology and not create anything. Perhaps the great next step in the evolution of the human race is a period of extended Entertainment Ingestion – where people sit around on couches all the time and watch reruns of Friends and marvel at how far humanity has evolved. That we can all sit around and do nothing with thousands of years’ worth of technological advancements.
- Tablets might be better than laptops and desktops for most people IF (and it is an IF) they mostly just surf the web and check email and check Facebook.
- People might want a device that is completely pointless. It’s like entertainment. The big winning advantage of Tablets might be that it’s the one device where you know there’s no danger of ‘work’ happening.
- Tablets might be the simplest thing ever invented for users unfamiliar or scared of technology. Again, Steve Jobs is gone so who’s going to create something that’s more ‘easy and accessible’ for normal human beings. Most technology people have the unique gift of thinking their grandmother had a time travel machine and used it to learn assembler coding.
Reasons 5 and 6 are the big ones. Tablets might be really good and might last precisely for the twin reasons everyone shafts them for – They are dead simple to use & They have no ‘productive’ use (perhaps most Tablet users want ZERO productive use from their entertainment Tablets/devices).
Tablets might survive for a long, long time precisely for those two reasons.
Quick Thought: My money is actually on Tablets going away in the long term. In 15-20 years. Keep in mind that we had a similar crazy ramp-up with Netbooks. They fell as soon as Tablets arrived on the scene. Technology cycles are getting shorter and shorter. PCs have stuck around for 30-40 years. Tablets might get just half of that – which would mean that by 2018 to 2021, Tablets might be completely gone. And then we will wish they hadn’t been beaten out by iContacts and StalkerGoggles.
What about Kindle Fire? Will Kindle Fire be around in 5 years?
That’s a really good question.
The reasons for it to be around in 5 years are –
- As long as there is a Tablet Market Amazon, is going to sell Tablets. That’s just my gut feeling.
- Kindle Fires are actually mini Amazon Stores. Amazon will keep selling them as long as people are willing to carry around a mini-Amazon store in their hands. Amazon’s motivations to sell Tablets are MUCH stronger than anyone else’s.
- Amazon isn’t a fashion company. What I mean is that Amazon doesn’t have to find the next technological fashion to survive. It can afford to sell uncool things like eReaders. It will perhaps sell Tablets long after people think Watches and Stalker Goggles are the Fashion of the Year.
- Amazon is going to cater to people who can’t afford the high-end Tablets and there are a lot more of those people. Which means Amazon’s Kindle Fire will have 5-10 years more life than high-end Tablets. Even if iPads die out in 10-15 years, Kindle Fires can go on for a further 10 years just by selling to people with lower incomes.
- Amazon might view Tablets as the best delivery device for digital items.
The reasons Kindle Fire might not be around in 5 years –
- Apple might, in a moment of desperation, release a very low priced iPad Mini. Apple has a terrible dilemma – Cut iPad and iPad Mini prices and lower profit margins OR Keep iPad and iPad Mini prices high and lose market share. We’ve already seen Apple is willing to massively lower its profit margins to prevent Android Tablets from doing a PC vs Mac repeat. It may very well do that again. If it comes down to $149 Kindle Fires Versus $199 iPad Mini 2s, Apple will probably decimate Kindle Fire.
- Android Tablets from Google might hit $99 within a year and that might really hurt Kindle Fire.
- Amazon might see more value in selling Phones and might shift focus to Kindle Phones. We just have to look at how Kindle eInk Readers are ignored currently – All the focus is on Kindle Fires. If Kindle Phone sells at 3-4 times the rate of Kindle Fire, Amazon would likely shift 100% to Kindle Phones.
- We might have World War III. There certainly seem to be enough global squabbles going on for something bigger to ignite. We’ll be sitting around bonfires and talking – Those were the days. We had running water and cheap electricity. Now this fancy smart phone makes for a nice paperweight.
- Amazon might cut costs and get rid of the Kindle Fire division. Not as inconceivable as it seems right now.
Interestingly enough, I think Kindle Fire might last a lot longer than the other Tablets. For a company like Apple or Microsoft – if it can’t make a big profit from hardware and/or software, then there’s little value in the market. For Amazon, it might just think of Kindle Fires as Customer Acquisition Devices and keep selling them long after everyone else.
Closing Thought – Is ‘Having No Valuable Use’ the Killer Feature for Tablets? Or are Tablets going to die out in 10-15 years?
Perhaps Tablets are popular precisely because they have no ‘Killer Feature’. Perhaps Tablets are popular because they are very malleable and are different things to different people.
Perhaps Tablets are the ‘Technological Flavor of the Year/Decade’. The PDAs of the 2010s? The Netbooks that followed Netbooks? Perhaps a testament to how much Technology has now become like the fashion industry.
The more I think about it, the more it seems that the Blackberry CEO might be on to something. He might be woefully wrong about the timeline (5 years). However, it’s hard to make a credible argument that Tablets (or for that matter any of today’s technology other than the Internet and things like desktop and laptop computers and phones) will be around in 10-15 years.