The Tablet is the Computer

One thing discussed often and at great length in nerdy circles these days is this: Is the tablet—by which we really mean the Apple iPad, because it created the market, and presently accounts for nearly two thirds of it—a computer. A PC, if you will?

Some say that the iPad is not really a computer. It has no keyboard. People don’t sit at desks to use it. It lacks the horsepower of most of today’s computers. So they think it’s a big smartphone. I think they are wrong. They misunderstand what is happening.

This is not hard to see in action. Wandering around an airport cafe the other day, everyone had at least one device. But those with an iPad were by far the most comfortable, whether curled up in an armchair or sitting at a table. And they were doing everything: I saw one guy watching a movie, another writing a letter, another CEO-type playing Angry Birds. I was thrown out of the cafe before I was able to finish my research.

At the hairdressers no fashion magazines were being read: Everyone was cradling an iPad, oblivious to the time and their hair being teased into odd shapes.

So let’s look at the data.

Surveys by comScore, a metrics company, point to what is really happening. In studies in the U.S. last October and of Europe released this week [Registration required], they noticed that during the week tablet usage spikes at night—as computer usage drops off. So while during the work day folk are using their PCs, come evening they switch to tablets. (Mobile usage, however, remains flat from about 6 pm.)  The drop in PC usage is even more pronounced in the U.S., while tablet usage in the evening continues to rise until about 11 pm:

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In other words, people are using their tablets as computers. Not as mobile devices. Not as replacements for their phone. They’re using them, in the words of a friend of mine, as a replacement to that ancient computer sitting in the corner gathering dust that gets booted up once in a while to write an email or a letter to Granny on.

Now not everyone is using tablets like this. The first surveys of tablet usage indicated they were using them as ‘TV buddies’—things to play with while watching TV. But this still doesn’t quite capture what is happening.

One study by Nielsen found last May that 3 out of 10 Americans were using their computer less frequently after buying a tablet. What’s surprising about this figure is that it’s higher than for all other devices—including gaming consoles, Internet-connected TVs and portable media players. Given the plethora of games and stuff you can get for a tablet, surely more people would be saying that they use these devices less than their netbook, laptop or desktop, now they have a tablet?

That survey was done when less than 5% of U.S. consumers owned one. A year on, that figure is much higher. Pew’s Internet and American Life Project reported on Jan 23 that the number of American adults who owned a tablet grew from 10% to 19% over the holiday period; although their data may not be directly comparable with Nielsen’s it sounds about right. And represents an unprecedented adoption of a new device, or computing platform, or whatever you want to call it.

(Pew also surveys ebook readers and finds the same results. But I think we’ll see a serious divergence between these two types of device. Yes, some tablets are good for reading and some ereaders, like the Kindle Fire, look a lot like a tablet. But they’re different, and used in different ways. I think that while the market will overlap even more, they’ll be like more like the laptop and netbook markets, or the ultrabook and the PC market: they may do similar things but the way people use them, and the reason people buy them, will differ.)

This is rapidly altering the demographics of the average tablet user. Back in 2010, a few months after the first iPad was launched, 18-34 year olds accounted for nearly half the market, according to another Nielsen report. A year on, that figure was down to a little over a third, as older folk jumped aboard. Indeed the number of 55+ iPad users doubled in that period, accounting for more than 25-34 year old users.

(Pew’s figures suggest that while older folk have been slower to adopt, the rate of growth is picking up. Around a quarter of adults up to the age of 49 now have a tablet in the U.S. (a shocking enough figure in itself.) Above 50 the number comes down. But the telling thing to me is that the rate of growth is more or less the same: about a fourfold growth between November 2010 and January 2012. While a lot of these may have been gifts over the holidays, it also suggests that the potential is there.)

So it’s pretty simple. The tablet, OK, the iPad came along and reinvented something that we thought no one wanted—a tablet device with no keyboard. But Apple’s design and marketing savvy, and the ecosystem of apps and peripherals, have made the tablet sexy again. Indeed, it has helped revive several industries that looked dead: the wireless keyboard, for example. ThinkOutside was a company in the early 2000s that made wonderful foldable keyboards for the Palm, but couldn’t make it profitable (and is now part of an apparently moribund company called iGo).

Now look: the website of Logitech, a major peripherals company, has the external keyboard and stand for the iPad as more or less its top product. Logitech reckon a quarter of tablet users want an external keyboard, and three quarters of them want their tablet “to be as productive as their laptop.” Most peripheral companies offer a kind of wireless keyboard, and there are more on the horizon.

And as BusinessWeek reported, the highest grossing app on the iPad appstore this Christmas wasn’t Angry Birds; it was a program for viewing and editing Microsoft Office documents, called QuickOffice. The app itself is not new: it’s been around since 2002, and a paired-down version came preinstalled on dozens of devices. But people wouldn’t shell out the extra $10 for the full version—until the iPad came along. Now they happily pay $20 and the company sold $30 million’s worth in 2011. (BusinessWeek links this to growing corporate interest in the iPad but you can see from comScore’s data that this is not necessarily correct. The tablet is a personal device that is mostly used outside the office.)

So. There’s a new industry out there, and it’s for a device that’s not a phone, though it has the same degree of connectivity; it’s not a desktop, though it should be able to do all the things a desktop can do; it’s not a laptop, though it should make the user as productive as a laptop can. And it’s many more things besides: a TV buddy, a sort of device to accompany your downtime in cafes, salons or on the couch.

Gartner, a research company, reckon that from about 17.5 million devices sold in 2010 there will be 325 million sold in 2015. An 18-fold increase. In the same period the annual sales of notebooks will only have doubled, and desktops will have grown by, er, 5%. Hard not to conclude from that that the tablet, OK, the iPad, is going to be everyone’s favorite computer—replacing the desktop, the laptop and whatever ultrabooks, netbooks or thinkbooks are the big thing in 2015.

(Update: This was written before Apple’s results. Tim Cook has confirmed the PC is their main competitor.) 

Podcast: Google Dilemma

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on the Google Dilemma (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

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To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Podcast: The Real Revolution

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on the rise of the smartphone (The Business Daily podcast is here.) 

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

The Google Dilemma

Once we lived in simpler times. Google was a search engine that made its money off ads that were based on what we searched for. Look for cocoa and you’d get an ad for hot chocolate alongside the search results. Google made lots of money from this and we got our hot chocolate.

This worked because the web was searchable. At the end of the 1990s there was no walled garden beyond the shrinking cabbage patches of early Internet service providers AOL and CompuServe: All the the web was there anxious to be indexed, to be searchable. Idealists wandered into the sunshine and spoke of a future when everything would be found and information would be free.

It was not to be. We’ve already seen some of the problems. When information is free—as in not in chains—people also expect it to be free—as in free beer. When we started relying on search engines to find what we needed online the process would only work if that information was free to Google and its ilk to index, which meant, for the most part, it had to be free to us to access. Result: Google made lots of money, and lots of news organisations had to die before new business models could be found.

But something else happened along the way. Google made its money from knowing us through what we searched for. We had a relationship with Google whether we realised it or not. Just by entering a search term we told them stuff about us, and that helped them help others to sell us stuff. We weren’t the customer; we were, in the now familiar argot, the product.

Then Facebook and twitter and other social networks came along and realised that the same could be true on a much bigger scale if we could be induced to enter a lot more information about ourselves. Soon our lives were online, including photos, videos, likes and dislikes, relationships, affiliations, locations, what we ate, wore, drank, listened to, bought, read.

All that data is even more valuable than the data Google collected on us. But the problem is that it’s not part of the web. Facebook is not really searchable outside Facebook—and it’s not very searchable within Facebook, if you’ve tried to find a link you remember sharing with someone back in October. So now Google is shut out of a big chunk of the web we thought would be forever open.

So Google invented its own social network. Well, two, but one failed: Remember Buzz, anyone? Google now has Google+ and in the past year it’s been pushing it so hard it’s beginning to look like Google has forgotten what made it good in the first place. Its most recent stunt: Incorporate a search on Google with a search of the Google+ network, which it calls, somewhat awkwardly, Search, Plus Your World.

The idea is simple: When you search for cocoa, you not only want a search of what the web has to say on the subject, but you are probably interested in what your friends on Google+ have to say on the matter, along with any photos and tidbits you may have shared yourself.

Many folk don’t like this. They not only feel Google has forgotten that simplicity and speed was what made the search engine the world’s default. They also question why Google assumes that its users are only interested in Google+, which is still a minor player in the social network stakes. Why no twitter, Facebook or other networks?

Google says these two giants aren’t playing ball, something both companies deny; it’s far from clear who’s telling the truth. But what is clear is that Google is grappling with a problem that threatens it more than anything thus far: The rise of social networks which it cannot access, and therefore not only limit its popularity as a search engine, but shut it out of lots of ad dollars.

Folk were already worried that Google was alienating users of its products—not just search, but documents, email, maps, RSS, calendars and the mobile operating system Android—by pushing them into joining Google+. Now they’re worried, in my view rightly so, that Google is jeopardising its core product, the one that makes it all its money, by fiddling search results to favor this new social network.

It’s unlikely, but if people start to abandon Google search in droves, the rest of the empire will collapse like those walled gardens of old.

The Real Revolution

This is also a podcast, from my weekly BBC piece. 

While folks at the annual tech show in Vegas are getting all excited about a glass-encased laptop, the world’s thinnest 55″ TV and a washing machine you can control from your phone, they may be forgiven for missing the quiet sound of a milestone being crossed: there are now more smartphones in the world than there are ordinary phones.

According to New York-based ABI Research, 3G and 4G handsets now account for more than half of the total mobile phone market. Those old ‘dumb phones’ and the so-called feature phones–poor relations to the computer-type iPhone or Android device can–are now officially in decline.

This is, in the words of ABI Research’s Jake Saunders, “an historic moment.” While IDC, another analyst company, noticed that this happened in Western Europe in the second quarter of last year, Saunders points out: “It means not just mobile phone users in Developed Markets but also Emerging Market end-users are purchasing 3G handsets.”

So why is this a big issue? Well, a few years back it would have been hard to convince someone in an emerging market to shell out several hundred bucks for a phone. A phone for these folks was good for talking and sending text messages. That was a lot. And enough for most people–especially when the handset cost $20 and the monthly bill was even less.

Now, with prices falling and connectivity improving in the developing world a cellphone is so much more: It’s a computer. It’s an Internet device. It’s a portable office and shop front. It’s a music player. A TV. A video player. A way to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

And for the industry these people in emerging markets are a life saver. For example: The developed world is pretty much saturated with smartphones. People aren’t buying them in the numbers they used to.

But that’s not to say the feature phone is dead. In fact, for some companies it’s still an important part of their business. Visionmobile, a UK based mobile phone research company, says that Nokia–busy launching its new Windows Lumia phones in Vegas–is still the king of feature phones, accounting for more than a quarter of the market.

And they just bought a small company called, confusingly, Smarterphone, which makes a feature phone interface look more like a smartphone interface. So clearly at least one company sees a future in this non-smartphone world. In a place like Indonesia, where the BlackBerry leads the smartphone pack, nearly 90% of phones sold in the third quarter of last year were feature phones, according to IDC.

So companies see a big chance for growth in these parts of the world. But they also need the spectrum. If you’re a mobile operator your biggest problem now is that smartphone users do a lot of downloading. That means bandwidth. The problem is that one piece of spectrum is for that 3G smartphone, and another is for your old-style 2G phone. The sooner you can get all your customers to upgrade their handset to 3G, the sooner you can switch that part of the spectrum you own to 3G.

So this is a big moment. We’re seeing a tipping point in the world’s use of cellphone use, from a simple, dumb communication device to something vastly more useful, vastly more exciting, vastly more lucrative. All those people moving over to smartphones

ABI Research reckons there’ll be 1.67 billion handsets sold this year. That’s one in four people buying a new device. Forget fancy Vegas. The real revolution just started.