How the Tablet Wars Can Impact End-Users by Steve Cunningham

A few short months after the introduction of Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire, the situation I will henceforth refer to as the "tablet wars" went from warm to simmer. The players in this imaginary contest include Apple's iPad of course, along with a collection of Android-powered devices from the likes of Samsung, Asus, Acer, the aforementioned Amazon, Motorola, and even the unlikely Barnes and Noble. With the introduction of Apple's iPad 3, featuring its stunning new Retina display and 1080p camera, the wars have reached at least a low boil, as a quick look through the comment area of any tech-oriented website will confirm.

The specific devices in the tablet wars arrange themselves into two distinct "value" categories: low-cost with bargain-level build quality versus high-cost with higher-level build quality. Most of the current Android-powered tablets appear to fall into the former category, while a scant few presently seem able to join Apple's iPad products in the latter category. Of course, the functionality of tablets in both categories is dependent entirely upon the features of the software apps they run, which at present is at parity in many cases. However, it is true that Apple's customers have historically been willing to pay higher prices for software apps than have Android users, and as a result there are more expensive and more capable apps and accessories available for iOS devices than for Android-powered devices.

Now Microsoft has indirectly tossed its oversized chapeau into the ring with the beta release of Windows 8, and promises a version for ARM processors that features a tablet-friendly interface. More importantly, they have announced that the ARM version will have a desktop on which it will be able to run applications from the company's Office suite.

Some tech pundits opine that Windows 8 for tablets is a game-changer, and has the potential to present the iPad with serious competition. At the very least, one can expect that at least some of the current manufacturers of Windows-based computers will join the tablet fray. According to the tech rumor mill, the possibility of Windows-powered tablets has drawn significant interest from Dell, Asus, Nokia, and even the once-burned Hewlett-Packard. Other makers of Android tablets may defect to Windows, should version 8 fulfill the expectations of its supporters. So the market will also split by operating system: Android, iOS, and Windows.

However, should Microsoft's tablet vision come to pass, the most important market dynamic of all may well be the familiar user segments that still exist today in the personal computer industry: business, education, and consumer. The winners of the tablet wars will be those companies that can replace desktop and laptop computers for those segments. Consumers are already there; tablets are replacing laptops as an acceptable way to watch a movie or TV program, on the road or at home.

The education segment is still somewhat hit-and-miss. I see an increasing number of faculty walking to class carrying an iPad and a notebook. This column has discussed replacing expensive textbooks with e-books, although publishers have been unwilling to adjust the cost of electronic textbooks relative to paper. Several colleges and universities provide students with tablets to encourage the use of e-textbooks, and the potential of e-textbooks still exists, but publishers remain a roadblock. So do some faculty, who have indicated a preference for paper textbooks over virtual ones.

However, it is the business segment may present the biggest obstacle to the tablet, and to a Windows-based tablet in particular. After all, is it not the case that Microsoft Office has defined the personal computer's value for business use? One of the problems with tablets in general is their lack of a usable keyboard. Consider using Microsoft Word or Excel without a physical keyboard — does this represent a reasonable use case? What about Powerpoint? A tablet is ideal for displaying a finished presentation, but what about the process of creating that presentation?

Yes, there are external keyboards and other input devices available, but at that point the portability benefit vanishes, and the entire product concept falls down. If and when voice recognition software becomes accurate and competent enough to allow dictation to replace the keyboard entirely, the tablet may indeed fulfill its destiny as a reasonable replacement for laptop computers. Until then, tablet devices may remain primarily a presentation and consumption device for media created elsewhere. Apart from potential videoconferencing use, I suspect its value to the business segment is still limited, and the tablet wars are just beginning.

Steve Cunningham is an assistant professor of practice at USC's Thorton School of Music.