We often forget that the idea of a personal computer is an extremely modern one, considering how ingrained in our lives they have become. Indeed the first personal computers appeared around 40 years ago and it took decades for them to become a fixture as common as the television in modern households. The last 2 decades have seen an explosion in the adoption rate of personal computers growing at double digit rates nearly every year. Still even though today’s personal computers are leaps and bounds above their predecessors in terms of functionality they still share the common keyboard, monitor and mouse configuration that’s been present for decades despite many attempts to reinvent them.
There does however seem to be a market for curated computing devices that, whilst lacking the power of their bigger brethren, are capable of performing a subset of their tasks. I first began to notice this trend way back when I was still working in retail as many customer’s requirements for a PC rarely amounted to more than “email, web surfing and writing a few documents”. Even back then (2000~2006) even the most rudimentary of the PC line I had to sell would cover this off quite aptly and more often than not I’d send them home with the cheapest PC available, leaving the computing beasts to gather dust in the corner. To me it seemed that unless you were doing photo/video editing or gaming you could buy a PC that would last the better part of 5 years before having to think about upgrading, and even then only because it would be so cheap to do so.
The trend towards such devices began about 4 years ago with the creation of the netbook class of personal computing devices. Whilst still retaining much of the functionality of their ancestors netbooks opted for a small form factor and low specifications in order to keep costs down. I, like many geeks of the time, saw them as nothing more than a distraction as they filled a need that didn’t exist failing to remember the lessons I had learned many years before. The netbook form factor proved to be a wild success with many people replacing their PCs in favor of the smaller platform. They were however still fully fledged PCs.
Then along came Apple with their vision of creating yet another niche and filling it with their product. I am of course talking about the iPad which has enjoyed wild success and created the very niche that Apple dreamed of creating. Like with netbooks I struggled with the idea that there could be a place in my home for yet another computing device since I could already do whatever I wanted. However just like the netbooks before them I finally came around to the idea of having a tablet in my house and that got me thinking, maybe the curated experience is all most people need.
Perhaps the PC is better off as an appliance, at least for most people.
For the everyman their requirements for a computing device outside the workplace don’t usually extend past the typical “email, web and document editing” holy trinity. Tablets, whilst being far from an ideal platform to do all those tasks aptly (well, in my opinion anyway) they’re good enough to replace a PC for most people outright. Indeed the other Steve behind Apple, Mr Wozniak, has said that tablets are PCs for everyone else:
“The tablet is not necessarily for the people in this room,” Wozniak told the audience of enterprise storage engineers. “It’s for the normal people in the world,” Wozniak said.
“I think Steve Jobs had that intention from the day we started Apple, but it was just hard to get there, because we had to go through a lot of steps where you connected to things, and (eventually) computers grew up to where they could do … normal consumer appliance things,” Wozniak said.
If you consider the PC as a household appliance then the tablet form factor starts to make a lot of sense. Sure it can’t do everything but it can do a good chunk of those tasks very well and the barrier to using them is a whole lot lower than that of a fully fledged PC. Plus unlike a desktop or laptop they don’t seem out of place when used in a social situation or simply lying around on the coffee table. Tablets really do seem to be a good device for the large majority of people who’s computing needs barely stress today’s incredibly powerful PCs.
Does that mean tablets should replace PCs outright? Hell no, there’s still many tasks that are far more aptly done on PC and the features that make a tablet convenient (small size, curated experience) are also its most limiting factors. Indeed the power of tablets is built on the foundations that the PC has laid before it with many tablets still relying on their PC brethren to provide certain capabilities. I think regular users will gravitate more towards the tablet platform but it will still be a long time before the good old keyboard, monitor and mouse are gone.
If you didn’t spend 5 minutes talking to me about Apple you’d probably assume I was one of their fan boys. Whilst I don’t have many of their products I can count quite a few of them littering my house with a shiny MacBook Pro scheduled to be delivered sometime soon. Long time readers of the blog will know that I’ve launched my share of both vitriol and praise in their general direction over the past couple years with most of it tending towards the former, almost wholly due to them rubbing the caged libertarian in my head the wrong way. I’d say that the other part is from the more fanatical parts of their fan base who seem to do more work than Apple’s own PR department.
Today’s rant comes to you courtesy of the latter who have recently taken to stating that the iPad, in all its wondrous “magical” glory, has begun chomping away at netbook sales as demonstrated by some recent sales figures:
Look at the figures, things seemed to be on the rise over the previous eight months with only two monthly declines that are explained by the drop off after holiday sales (Dec to Jan decline) and the drop off after back-to-school sales (Sep to Oct decline). The moment consumers were able to put down the money for an iPad, the number of notebook sales started to fall.
Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn also backed up this data telling the Wall Street Journal that Best Buy is seeing iPad sales taking as much as 50% away from notebook computer sales!
Indeed the way the data is presented it would make you think that even the mere mention of a computing product from Apple would be enough to scare people into not buying a netbook. However this is one of those times when you need to understand that correlation does not mean causation, I.E. whilst there’s data that shows these two variables interacting this does not imply that one has affected the other. In fact I’d argue that to say so ignores a wealth of data that was pointing to netbook sales stagnating a long time ago with a plunge to follow soon after.
2007 was the first year we saw a significant amount of traction with the netbook market with around 400,000 units being sold. The year that followed saw a stratospheric rise in sales, to the tune of almost 30000% with 11.4 million units sold. Whilst I can’t find a hard figure on sales for 2009 most articles around the time pegged an increase of around 100% or 22.8 million units moved. That kind of growth as any economist will tell you is completely and utterly unsustainable and it was inevitable that the netbooks would finally reach a point where their sales growth would hit a ceiling. It appears that the time is now which just so happens to coincide with a release from Apple. Whilst I’ll admit that there may be some influence from people not refreshing their netbook in lieu of an iPad I’d hazard a guess that that number is vanishingly small.
The trouble with using such figures as a tell for the iPad’s influence is that these are comparative figures (growth is compared to the year previous). If you take a look at that graph above you’ll see that the previous year’s growth was quite massive, hovering around the 30% region for all of the months that are showing decline. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year when we’re able to do the same comparison that we see a much more sustainable growth rate in the single figures. Growing at double digit rates for extended periods of time just isn’t doable, especially in an industry where hardware is usually expected to have a useful life of 3 years or more. The drop in sales is likely a combination of the market reaching saturation, netbooks falling out of favour (to be replaced with games consoles, new cameras and 3D TVs apparently) and an overall reduction in discretionary spending thanks to a bleak economic outlook in the USA. Somewhere in the midst of all those factors are those few people who were looking to buy a netbook but decided to go for an iPad instead, but those few do not swing as much power as the other factors that have had a downward pressure on netbook sales this past year.
Look I get it, Apple made a product that a lot of people think is pretty darn spiffy and anything that could be classed as a competitor obviously will be decimated by it. We’ve still yet to see the media revolution that it was meant to spawn (amongst other things) it seems rather premature that a device that hasn’t achieved its other goals is already decimating a market that it’s only casually related to. The stories then come from those who are towing the Jobs’ party line that netbooks are nothing more than cheap laptops, with little regard for the actual facts. Luckily it appears that not all of them are getting sucked into the easy pageviews and hopefully the fud will eventually be drowned out, leaving only the deluded fan boys holding onto dubious claims and long debunked statements.
I consider myself to be pretty lucky to be living in a time when technical advancements are happening so rapidly that the world as we knew it 10 years ago seems so distant as to almost be a dream. Today I carry in my pocket as much computing power as what used to be held in high end desktops and if I so desire I can tap into untold pools of resources from cloud based companies for a fraction of what the same ability would’ve cost me even a couple years ago. With technology moving forward at such a fever pace it is not surprising that we manage to come up with an almost infinite number of ways in which to utilize it. Within this continuum of possibilities there are trends towards certain aspects which resonate with a need or want that certain audiences have, thereby driving demand for a product centered around them. As such we’ve seen the development of many devices that are toted as being the next revolution in technology with many being touted as the future of technology.
Two such ideas spring to mind when I consider recent advances in computing technology and both of them, on the surface, appear to be at odds with each other.
The first is the netbook. I can remember clearly the day that they first started making the rounds in the tech news circles I frequent with the community sentiment clearly divided over this new form of computing. In essence a netbook is a rethink of traditional computing ideals in that the latest and greatest computer is no longer required to do the vast majority of tasks that users require. It took me back to my years as a retail salesman as I can remember even back then telling over 90% of my customers that any computer they bought from us would satisfy their needs since all they were doing was web browsing, emailing and documents. The netbook then was the embodiment of the majority of users requirements with the added benefit of being portable and most importantly cheap. The market exploded as the low barrier to entry brought portable computing to the masses who before netbooks never saw a use for a portable computer.
The second is tablets. These kinds of devices aren’t particularly new although I’ll forgive you if your first ever experience with such a device was the iPad. I remember when I was starting out at university I looked into getting a tablet as an alternative to carrying around notepads everywhere and was unfortunately disappointed at the offerings. Back then the tablet idea was more of a laptop that got a swivel touchscreen added to it. Couple that with the fact that in order to keep costs down they were woefully underpowered you had devices that, whilst they had their niche, didn’t have widespread adoption. The introduction of a more appliance focused device in the form of the iPad arguably got the other manufacturers developing devices for consumption rather than general computing. Now the tablet market has exploded with a flurry of competing devices, all looking to capture this next computing revolution.
Both of these types of devices have been touted as the future of computing at one point or another and both have been pushed as being in direct competition with each other. In fact the latest industry numbers and predictionswould have you believe that the tablet market has caused a crash in the number of netbook sales. The danger in drawing such conclusions is that you’re comparing what amounts to an emerging market to an established maturing industry. Slowing growth might sound like a death knell to an industry but that’s actually more to do with the fact that as a market matures there are more people not buying the devices because they already have one, I.E. the market is reaching saturation point. Additionally the percentages give the wrong idea since you’re ignoring the market size. In 2010 alone there have already been 20 million netbooks sold, over 6 times that of the iPad and similar devices. Realistically these devices aren’t even in competition with each other.
So why did I choose the rather grandiose title for this post rather than say “Tablets vs Netbooks, Facts and Figures”? The answer, strangely enough, lies within spaghetti sauce:
(I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch that entire video, it’s quite fantastic)
The talk focuses on the work of Howard Moskowitzwho is famous for reinventing the canned spaghetti sauce industry. Companies approached him to find out what the perfect product would be for their target markets. After following tradition scientific methods he found that his data bore no correlation to the variables that he had to play with until he realised that there could be no perfect product, there had to be perfect products. The paradigm shift he brought on in the food industry can be seen in almost all products they produce today with specific sets of offerings that cater to the various clumps of consumers that desire their products.
How the heck does this relate to tablets and netbooks? Simple, neither one of these types of products is the perfect solution to end user computing and neither were any of the products that came before it. Over time we’ve discovered trends that seem to work well in worldwide markets and we’ve latched onto those. Then companies attempt to find the perfect solution to their users needs by trying to aggregate all possible options. However no one product could attempt to satisfy everyone and thus we have a diverse range of devices that fit our various needs. To make the three types of sauces analogy there are those who like their computing focused on consumption (tablets, MIDs, consoles), creation (desktops, laptops, netbooks) and integration (smartphones). These are of course wholly unresearched categories, but they seem to ring true from my anecdotal experience with friends and their varying approaches towards computing.
So whilst we may have revolutions and paradigm shifts in the computing world no one of them will end up being the perfect solution to all our needs. As time goes by we will begin to notice the trends and clumps of users that share certain requirements and develop solutions for them so the offerings from companies will become increasingly focused on these key areas. For the companies it means more work as they play catch up as each of these revolutions happens and for us it means a greater computing experience than we’ve ever had before, and that’s something that never fails to excite me.
For the honeymoon I was faced with a rather difficult choice. The first was to lash out now and get the Macbook I alluded to in another post now instead of later. This would put us in a difficult situation financially as whilst I can write off the majority of the cost I’d still be out of pocket for $3500 until work got around to doing the paper work, something which I couldn’t quite afford with the wedding on the horizon. I therefore relegated myself to finding a cheap netbook that would serve as our journey book for the trip. I then discovered a couple things.
The first was that I was hoping to get one with a discrete graphics chip. Now I wasn’t looking for anything too fancy, just something other than an Intel GMA as they’re not the best for anything but 2D work. I’m not planning to play the latest games on netbook, but it would be nice if I could burl up Warcraft 3 on it for a little DOTA action on the couch. It seems this was not meant to be as the few I could find with such a feature weren’t available in Australia, and I didn’t have 2~3 weeks to wait for one to arrive from overseas.
I then thought to myself how useful a tablet PC would be, as I could use that for various other things once it had served its purpose as a travel journal. Additionally Rebecca had always wanted one so there was definitely some common ground covered by getting a tablet. My search then tracked down two suitable candidates, the Gigabyte T1028 and the EEE T91. A quick comparison shows the T1028 coming out ahead in all aspects (including price, $799 to the EEE $737 according to staticice at time of writing) so the obvious choice was the T1028. I’d had experience with a housemate’s EEE before and couldn’t stand the tiny keyboard and the promise of a 92% of full sized keyboard on the T1028 made it sound usable. I ordered myself one with express posting and recieved it not 2 days later:
The model I got was the T1028X which apart from a few small things isn’t too much different from the rest of the range. The packaging it comes in is quite attractive and gives the user a hint at what’s to come when you open the box up:
Included in the box are the standard accessories: power cables, manuals, driver CD, extra stylus and a neoprene carry case. The case is actually quite nice especially if you’re someone like me who hasn’t actually owned any of the laptops he had previously (they were all work ones) and don’t have a hand me down case you can use with it. The X model which I got has the 6 cell battery included which is supposed to give up to 6.5 hours of battery life. I haven’t yet given it a full drain test but general usage doesn’t seem to hit the battery too hard, although it does ruin the lines on it slightly.
The standard installation of Windows XP is included with this laptop however I blew that away to put Windows 7 on it. Since there’s no optical drive you’ll have to install it via a flash drive, easily done by following the instructions here. There was a small problem with my initial attempt as the disc I used must have had some corrupted files as the install would crash halfway through. After retrieving a new copy I managed to get it on there with no hassles at all.
This is where Windows 7 really starts to shine, as every device on the laptop (webcam, multi-touch pad, touchscreen, sound, bluetooth, wireless network) all installed without a wiff of a driver CD, and all function perfectly. I was surprised when the multi-touch gestures just worked without any cajoling at all, as this is usually something you have to wrestle with. The one grievance I have yet to resolve is the fact that the “flicks” feature that was made available to me doesn’t seem to recognise the touch screen correctly, as it the screen has been installed as a generic HID device (mouse). I’m pretty sure this would work fine if I wrangled with the XP drivers, but I just haven’t had the time yet.
The biggest grievance I have with the laptop is the same with most laptops these days: the glossy screen. It seems no matter what kind of laptop you get these days they’ll shine that screen up to make it look more expensive and whatnot. This is especially dumb with things like tablets which are going to have hands and fingers all over them and will display those fingerprints proudly. We have HP tablets at work that don’t have a glossy screen and they’re much more usable in this regard. However they do attract a much higher price tag.
Overall I’m very happy with this tablet. The overall build is solid and the seamless experience in upgrading to Windows 7 combine to make a very usable little netbook. For under $1000 this makes the perfect little travel companion with that little something extra that will make it useful when its travelling days are over. Overall I’d give it a 8.5/10.