Thin is in – but do tablet buyers really care?
By David BRAUE
In January every year, consumer-electronics companies converge on Las Vegas to gorge themselves on hyperbole, intimidate each other with their cutting-edge products, and impress the legions of journalists that descend on the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to see what’s on offer.
Unsurprisingly, the focus this year was on tablets, which were abundant in every size, shape, and colour.
Yet in many cases, vendors were pushing tablets not for their functionality, but because their slim design is somehow adjudged to be better than that of Apple’s iPad 2. For example, Toshiba's ultra-thin Excite X10 – doesn't the name just get you reaching for your wallet? – was being touted as being a full 0.6mm thinner than the rival ASUS's Transformer Prime.
It’s funny, really: instead of just focusing on designing better products, far too many companies think they can catch the eye with flashy industrial designs draped around stick-thin models. It’s like a microcosm of the fashion runways, but this time these overthin designs are built from Corning Gorilla Glass and brushed aluminium.
Sure, we all look for a bit of sexiness in our mobile devices. But once you look past the exterior, I’d venture that everyone wants a bit more substance as well – and this is where many makers struggle. Because with tablets already very well in the mainstream and redefining the idea of mobile devices across all sorts of industries, the priorities set at CES will trickle down across the mobility industry over the course of the next year.
But will the products? Not necessarily: history has shown that most of the whiz-bang gadgets on display at the show will fizzle before, during, or shortly after their launch. It takes a lot to produce a winner, and even casual iPad users know the device’s real appeal lies not in its thickness, but in the software that makes it work. When a fast-growing market is defined by competitors that recognise the operating system is so commoditised that all they can do to stand out is to shave another half a millimetre from their design, what does that say about the state of innovation?
On this count, mobility providers are making slower progress. By many accounts – as in the review of Hydrapinion's Adam Turner – Google has made its Android ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ interface prettier, but its back-end integration remains as subject to the whims of its multifaceted and changing software ecosystem as ever. This has direct implications for the future of tablets this year – and it will be Samsung’s long-awaited Galaxy Tab 10.1, which is still drawing the wrong kind of attention after being blocked in Germany and named as a target in an EU investigation to see whether Samsung has abused its patent rights.
These sorts of things may live outside the periphery of most users’ concerns, but they loom large on a tablet ecosystem that has quickly progressed from being a swish curiosity to a major factor in the future of the mobility market. However, despite their attempts to win buyers with tablet eye candy, companies are rushing to embrace the iPad as it becomes synonymous with ‘tablet’ in IT decision-makers’ minds. These decision-makers just want technological certainty – and, as business adoption figures are showing, that leads them back to the iPad every time. Unless the rival tablets debuted at CES can counter that perception, the shaving of a few grams or millimetres off their iPad rivals won’t make a scrap of difference in the long term.
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