Will tablets suffer the same fate as netbooks?

25 Oct 2011

When did you see your first netbook? I spotted a fellow commuter pecking at the Asus Eee PC 701 not long after its October 2007 debut, and I was impressed: powerful enough for basic tasks and smaller than any laptop I’d ever seen, it seemed like a genuine innovation.

Fast forward, and I spot my first iPad: on the Tube, its user oblivious to the envious gawping of fellow travellers. For me, it had a similar effect, heralding the arrival of another exciting, innovative type of product.

That’s not the only parallel between netbooks and tablets but, as far as I can see, others aren’t nearly so positive. The netbook's story has been a sad one: that initial flurry of excitement withered by staid products, precious little evolution and a stagnant market.

Look beneath the iPad - which is still a premium product - and the tablet market could suffer from many of the same problems.

The signs are already there: the market is flooded with a host of shoddy, near-identical products from established tech brands, no-name newcomers and bandwagon-riding outsiders, and innovation is hard to find.

Look under the hood of almost every tablet and you'll find similar components, with cheaper models boasting obsolete hardware that’s not good enough to run Angry Birds, let alone the more demanding software currently being churned out by eager developers. Uninspiring design dominates the exterior, with cheap iPhone and iPad ripoffs dominating the market.

Almost all of them run Android and, in almost all cases, they disappoint the user with a litany of problems: build quality is often poor, screens are grainy or, even worse, made with unresponsive resistive technology. Plenty don’t have access to the Android Market, instead using an awful third-party store or making do without any legitimate way to install new software.

It’s a familiar story for those who’ve followed the netbook market: shoddy build quality and screens were found across dozens of devices, and a lack of hardware innovation meant they were also of limited use – and soon overshadowed by low-powered laptops.

There’s still hope for tablets. Apple’s forging its own wildly successful path but, away from iOS, only a handful of manufacturers, such as Sony and Samsung, are forging ahead with innovative products. Microsoft, meanwhile, is placing plenty of stock in Windows 8.

Will that be enough to help tablets avoid the same fate of netbooks? It’s still a growing market - tablets have just overtaken netbook sales for the first time – but there’s a big chance it could head in the wrong direction if more people buy, and are disappointed by, sub-standard products. Perhaps Sony exec Mike Abary was right back in 2008: a “race to the bottom” might seem tempting but, in the long run, it does more harm than good.

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