Tech startup Fusion Garage has announced the debut of the JooJoo, a 12.1-inch tablet PC designed to surf the Internet. The device will be released on Dec. 11 under a cloud, however, with Michael Arrington-founder of popular technology blog TechCrunch-threatening to sue Fusion Garage over what he says is the theft of his design for a tablet PC.
Arrington insists that neither TechCrunch nor Fusion Garage owns the intellectual property related to the CrunchPad, that the two entities shared development costs and staffing, and that Fusion Garage CEO Chandra Rathakrishnan abruptly tried to shut him out of the development process on Nov. 17.
“Chandra said that based on pressure from his shareholders he had decided to move forward and sell the device directly through Fusion Garage without our involvement,” Arrington wrote in a TechCrunch blog post Nov. 30.
But Rathakrishnan insists that he came up the concept for a cheap tablet PC capable of surfing the Internet, and that Arrington failed to deliver on any hardware, software or funding promises. “[Fusion Garage] did the hardware. We had made the software. And we secured the funding,” Rathakrishnan said during a Dec. 7 Web conference, according to a Los Angeles Times blog post.
But Fusion Garage may face a bigger issue than an irritated Arrington: the possibility that only a very narrow subset of customers will actually pay $499 for the touch-screen device. Should the JooJoo crash and burn, it could provide a cautionary tale for both Apple and Microsoft, which are rumored to have their own tablet PCs in development for 2010.
Here are three reasons why:
Arrington insists that the JooJoo started life as the CrunchPad, a low-cost tablet PC he planned to debut onstage at the Real-Time CrunchUp event on Nov. 20. In his blog post about the project’s demise, Arrington suggested that the CrunchPad would have retailed for around $300.
The CrunchPad was a functional design, Arrington insisted. “It went hours without crashing,” he wrote. “We could even let people play with the device themselves-the user interface was intuitive enough that people ‘got it’ without any instructions.”
When Rathakrishnan announced the JooJoo, the price he named was $499. As cited by many online reviews of the product on Dec. 8, that price is higher than those of many netbooks currently on the market that offer functionality in addition to simple Web browsing-a fact that could make consumers pause.
Paying More for Less?
Analysts have been suggesting for the past few months that Apple’s own much-rumored tablet PC will retail for somewhere in the $500 to $700 range. While Apple itself has regularly refused to confirm even the existence of such a device, these analysts have had no problem theorizing about the Apple tablet’s possible features, including a 7- to 10-inch touch screen, virtual keyboard, Wi-Fi, integrated 3G module and modified version of either the Mac OS X or the iPhone OS.
In a similar vein, the blogosphere has been speculating for some time about the existence of the Courier tablet PC from Microsoft. Rumormongers have suggested features for the Courier that include the ability to allow note-taking, recognize handwriting, and organize information and photos. Microsoft had no comment for eWEEK about a possible device or price point.
If users are reluctant to embrace JooJoo and its limited functionality at $500, reasoning that they can find more functionality and usefulness in a netbook, then Microsoft and Apple may likewise find themselves hard-pressed to explain why a consumer should purchase their $700 products over a $250 ultraportable-unless they can give their respective tablet PCs some sort of unique functionality.
At this juncture, Fusion Garage seems to have no partners joining it on the launch-no surprise, given the device’s disputed history and its narrow functionality. If the JooJoo fails, it could re-emphasize the idea that a tablet PC needs to launch with a variety of software and content partners in hand if it wants a decent chance at success.
Whether or not Apple’s own tablet PC becomes a reality, Apple seems primed to draw on its existing relationships with media companies to provide such a device with a wide range of content from the beginning. If Microsoft releases the Courier, it will also likely do so in conjunction with other companies.
However, a content-provider ecosystem that’s too fragmented or contentious could prove just as detrimental to a tablet PC’s chances of success as having no content partners at all.
On Dec. 8, a consortium of publishers-Cond??« Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp. and Time-announced “an independent venture to develop open standards for a new digital storefront and related technology that will allow consumers” to read media on portable digital devices.
The group’s goal, apparently, is to create “a highly featured common reading application capable of rendering the distinctive look and feel of each publication” on top of a publishing platform optimized for multiple devices, operating systems and screen sizes. Content will be delivered through “a consumer storefront offering an extensive selection of reading options,” one capable of displaying ads.
It’s certainly no secret that publishing companies are scrambling to create a profitable model for distributing their content online.
But back in November, rumors circulated that other publishing companies-mostly newspapers-were in talks with Apple to possibly port content onto a tablet PC. In remarks at TheTimesCenter in New York, originally off the record but later leaked in full on the Website of the Nieman Journalism Lab, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller made mention of “the impending Apple slate” as a potential avenue for content. Whether he was referring to a tablet PC, or merely using “slate” to mean a generalized lineup of devices, is a question that Keller later refused to answer; nonetheless, a nearly simultaneous report from the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that Apple officials were in direct talks with Australian media companies over a new content application for a tablet.
Hard Choices for Consumers
These news reports raise the possibility that the rise of tablet PCs will be accompanied by a progressively more fragmented ecosystem of content providers, as various old-media and technology companies make alliances in order to serve what they see as their best interests. Players within the ecosystem, in other words, begin enacting a media-world version of The Prisoner’s Dilemma-everyone rushing for individual advantage and failing to obtain it.
Say a consortium of publishing companies does indeed launch its own independent venture for devices. And say Apple, wanting all content to filter through iTunes or its equivalent, shuts out that independent venture from being able to port content onto its tablet PC: Users would be able to download music or movies, but not published content. Say Microsoft (or another hardware vendor) chooses to embrace the independent vendors with the Courier or similar tablet PC-suddenly, consumers need to choose not only between hardware, but also between the companies they want providing content.
A consumer faced with choices like that will probably adopt a “wait and see” attitude-and in the meantime, the tablet PC ecosystem could wither on the proverbial vine.
This one relates to the price point argument. One of the reviewers’ primary complaints about the JooJoo has been that it does only one thing: surf the Web. With no hard drive, no ability to run applications on a desktop and no physical keyboard for typing longer documents, its usefulness is limited. Users may also be reluctant to embrace the tablet PC as a replacement for an e-reader, the e-ink screens of which are easier on the eyes than a traditional display.
Indeed, Arrington described his original vision of the CrunchPad as “a tablet computer that I could use to consume the Internet while sitting on a couch.”
But those who purchase a tablet PC are likely to be already pretty tech-savvy, meaning they probably already own the smartphones, netbooks and laptops necessary for them to surf the Internet anywhere. In other words, who actually needs a tablet PC? What function does it fulfill that isn’t already covered by any number of other devices?
That question will need to be answered if tablet PCs from Apple and Microsoft emerge from vaporware as actual, physical devices. If those tablet PCs end up being physical-keyboard-free versions of touch-screen laptops, then the devices will likely be seen as expensive toys. But if Apple and Microsoft come up with unique functionality for their devices-or convince a content partner to create a must-have application that makes use of the tablet’s form factor in a particularly exciting way-then there’s a higher likelihood that the tablet PC will gain traction in the marketplace.