The Great Tablet Debate: Fads or Here to Stay?

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Adam Hunger / Reuters

Shoppers look at the tablet computer IPad 2 at a Best Buy Store on the shopping day dubbed "Black Friday" in Framingham, Massachusetts.

What is a tablet and who needs one anyway? Are tablets a fad and will they soon fade into irrelevance like Netbooks? Will tablets replace traditional PCs? Is there a tablet market or just an iPad market? I hear there and other questions raised from industry executives as well as many in the media on a regular basis. There are a range of opinions all over the place on this great tablet debate and I hope to add some perspective to the conversation below.

This Market is Very Early
My firm’s analysis of the market suggests that the overall tablet industry is growing at a rapid pace. We estimate just over 50 million tablets will be sold in calendar 2011 and around 100 million in 2012. We, at Creative Strategies, Inc., believe that the majority of those will be iPads and there are some key reasons why.

The first can be attributed to the early market momentum of the iPad. When we look historically at how products get adopted, history generally favors the market leader. As products mature and consumers are experiencing ownership with a new product category, they generally go with the safe bet, and right now that’s the iPad. The iPad is by far the best general purpose tablet on the market and at the moment it commands the most consumer mindshare when considering a tablet purchase.

However, the tablet is a maturing category. This is a very important point to understand. Although technology products overall are being adopted more rapidly in mature markets, the products themselves still go through their own maturity process.  Tablets are no exception, which is why many consumers will look back at these early days and think of the iPad as the first tablet computer.

But a new wrinkle in the debate that’s come to light recently relates to the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. Both of these products have been reviewed in view of the iPad, which is the wrong approach. In reality, the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablets are interesting to the market because they’re not trying to compete with the iPad. Rather, both take a more specific use case approach. What I mean by this, is that the Fire and Nook Tablet were built with things like e-reading, and content consumption in mind.

The root of this understanding comes from one of the best technology industry books ever written by Clayton Christensen called “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” In this book, Professor Christensen brilliantly explains how consumers “hire” products to get jobs done. That job can be writing, reading, producing, creating, etc., but the point is that there are tasks and jobs to be done that products fulfill. The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet were built for specific jobs, whereas the iPad was built to be more general purpose, similar to a PC.

As this market matures and the tablet category evolves, consumers will refine for themselves which jobs a tablet fulfills. In that process the role of the tablet in consumers’ lives will flesh itself out. I don’t believe tablets are a fad and will find a very important role in the life of the global consumer.

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Tablets Will Impact Traditional PCs
We’ve yet to determine how tablets will impact traditional PCs. If we look at the technology opportunity globally and especially in emerging markets like China, India, Africa and others, we may well conclude that traditional PCs will be surpassed in interest and demand by things like smartphones and tablets. These first time markets for technology may never use a traditional PC the way mature markets did.

What is becoming clear is that tablets, for the time being, are delaying the purchase of a new notebook or desktop.   Consumers are realizing that a tablet can help them extend the current life of their PC because it can do so many things they do regularly with their PCs. Most consumers have very simple demands for PCs: They check email, browse the web and maybe do light photo or video editing. More and more in our consumer interviews we are seeing people understanding that tablets can offset many of the tasks the PC dominated. The point is that consumers believe a tablet can mitigate the need for them to upgrade their notebook or desktop immediately. This isn’t to say they won’t upgrade their desktop or laptop in the future, only that for now, a tablet plus an older PC or notebook is sufficient for many of the jobs they want to get done.

This will likely extend into 2012 and perhaps even into 2013 as consumers and businesses wait to see what Microsoft delivers with Windows 8. During that waiting process I expect even more tablet momentum to build. This probably means that growth of the PC market may be flat or stalled in 2012 as consumers try to figure out where a tablet fits into their digital lifestyle.

I personally believe the tablet or touch-based computer is the form factor of the future for the largest part of the market. I wrote a column to that degree here at TIME back in June. This is why I’m not surprised that after a case for the iPad, an external keyboard is the second most purchased accessory. Using an iPad in conjunction with a keyboard is an incredibly compelling alternative to a computer in many use cases. Again, we have to keep in mind that the largest part of the consumer market does not have complex needs and therefore a product like an iPad gets the job done the majority, if not all of the time.

My analyst colleagues at Canalys agree as they have included tablets in their overall PC tracking numbers. By their numbers, Apple is on track to become the leading global PC vendor. I agree and have been advocating for tablets to be included in PC industry numbers for some time now.

There is a reason the iPad is the most desired U.S. holiday gift item, especially among kids ages 6 to 12. There is a reason the second fastest group to adopt iPads is the 65 and up age demographic. The iPad is a computer that is ushering in computing to demographics for whom a traditional clamshell PC is too complex or even frightening.

I’ll sum up my thoughts on this debate with the most common response  I get when I ask consumers “What is an iPad?”

Their answer, plain and simple: “It’s a computer.”

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