The Tablet Device Market: caution rules for now...



It is nice to see a semblance of balance echoing through the Tablet Device majors now... a sense of sanity if you will. There seems to be an increasing realisation that the Indian market is based on different factors, and requires almost a paradigm shift in approach. This can only augur well for the entire trade - customers and employees alike, companies and stakeholders alike. 

History has proven that India's telecom market has grown along an entirely different path in comparison to the established markets of the west. For example, here the advent of pagers and mobiles happened almost simultaneously. Further, within the mobile space, there was heavy - almost cutthroat - competition, which placed intense pressure on pricing. The combination of the 2 factors drove the pager industry into the ground. The intense competition has forced the players to innovate constantly, which resulted in lower prices at the customer level, as well as a variety of devices especially in the lower price ranges. Again, the 2 factors working in tandem served to push up mobile penetration at an almost unheard-of pace.

A similar scene is now emerging in the latest battlefield in mobile / telecom space - the battle for the tablet market. And an early return to a sense of balance, a realisation of the tremendous challenges that lie ahead is a definite sign that the industry is becoming attuned to the realities of the market. For one, the initial euphoria of the tablet''s potential to replace the PC (!!) esp the notebook, seems to have given way to cautious optimism, and a more strategic approach. Far too obviously, given the Indian Market realities as well as the limitation of  a tablet device, the Tablet was never going to replace a notebook. As I had earlier argued with reference to low-cost tablets (http://reflectionsvvk.blogspot.in/2011/11/affordable-tablet.html), tablets as a product class can only be a secondary device to a smartphone and a laptop / desktop. As a primary device, a Tablet holds relevance only in the low-cost segment, where people in need of computing power  can have access to a device which is within their reach. Sample this: you can assemble a state of the art system with top-notch components at 20000-25000 approx, which is lesser than a premium tablet! Even branded systems are now available at comparable ranges. 

The moment you talk about a comparison to a PC or a Laptop or even a notebook, you have to compare the superior functionality offered by the notebooks etc with regard to its more comfortable user interface, which is much larger in size. The comparative ease of operation with regard to a keyboard input is another additional point in favour of notes and laps. The presence of large resolution screen is a powerful and core feature, which cannot be easily duplicated on a tablet. Secondly, the ease of operation of a full keyboard is a decided plus. These 2 factors go to the core of a user's experience of the product, and are a very significant barrier that will have to be overcome. It is easier to view  snaps on a large screen, as well as more fun, for one. Next, it is far more functional and easy to create documents and enter data on a full keyboard as opposed to a small pint-sized add on keyboard / touchscreen keyboard. And finally, there is the durability factor. Interestingly, this set of differences has both perceived as well as factual parameters. In other words, you might make a highly durable tablet, for example - but convincing the large majority of users of the same is quite another matter altogether. 

The more developed markets are a different market in terms of some core realities - the penetration of devices and technology, user awareness of technology, frequency and purpose of use, possession of multiple  devices by an average consumer (a function of PPP) - and are thus very different. Given the above, it is only to be expected that there will be some users of laps / notes that find a tablet more useful and functional, and tend to prefer the tablet in addition to their PCs in place of laps. This will of course be dictated by their individual needs and lifestyles. Further, these factors also dictate that this niche segment will be  marketable segment in developed markets.  But extrapolating this to the entire market is being premature to say the least. There is bound to a significant number of consumers for whom the superior interace of the Notebook will provide more value, or will be more acceptable to them. Note that I use 2 terms here: value and acceptability.

Value deals with functions such as large keyboard, durability or screen size, which for some users will be critical - those who deal with large numbers of documents while on the move, for instance; or those who require to see snaps and images on large screens. The parameter of acceptability has more to do with the perceptual factor - resistance of customers to a new interface. Given this twin reality, it is obvious that there will be a need for both kinds of devices in the market. What is more important is the size of each segment and its pace of growth. In mature markets, tablets will a faster-growth segment: that is a no-brainer. But in the other markets, it remains to be seen which segment grows at what pace. And that is precisely why this new-found caution and awareness in the corridors of the companies in the market augurs extremely well, for now instead of  a headlong rush, we are bound to see products with a value proposition involved for the customer; products that have been designed for a specific target audience with specific strategies over the short, mid and long term!

A battle that is going to be fun to follow... as as well as a great teacher to all of us!

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