There are two conclusions we might draw from the almost simultaneous decision of three respected industry analysts to dramatically slash their predictions of Tablet PC sales:
1. Tablet PCs are a real loser in the marketplace: a bad idea that will never catch on.
2. The analysts were smoking crack when they made their sales predictions.
Neither of these conclusions is true, although Tablet PCs obviously arent setting the world afire and, in retrospect, the analysts really must have been hallucinating when they issued those numbers. I just dont think crack was the likely cause. A Microsoft reality distortion field seems the more likely cause, but Id bet that Redmonds internal estimates never matched the external analyst numbers.
The problem with the analysts predictions is that Tablet PC could never have sold nearly the forecast numbers, unless they had become so mainstream that every notebook included tablet features. That was never going to happen and I think only the analysts are surprised that their predictions havent come true.
The analysts allowed themselves to be sucked into the Tablet PC hype and then contributed hugely to it. That they all “independently” came up with such wild numbers isnt evidence of collusion so much as mass hysteria.
Now, the Tablet PC platform suffers because it failed to live up to wild expectations. Because the analysts have revised their projections, Tablet PC looks like a real loser. Its just not fair.
I am not here saying the Tablet PC has been a big success. But, it hasnt been an abject failure, either.
Microsoft hasnt given customers much of a reason to demand a Tablet PC. Handwriting recognition is what people want when they think of a tablet computer. They seek something that will turn their scrawl into nice, clean text. Sadly, that isnt what a Microsoft Tablet PC does, at least not well enough to be considered a reliable tool for the masses. If it did, the analysts figures might have actually made some sense.
The integration of tablet features into Microsoft Office and other applications is still not what it could be. And OneNote, Microsofts killer app for Tablet, doesnt seem to have driven a huge volume of hardware sales.
Given this scenario, slow sales are what should have been expected. I havent quizzed any of the analysts on why their predictions were so far off—but my colleague Mary Jo Foley has. There are only two possible explanations: that a calamity occurred, which Ive missed, or the predictors were so far off the mark as to be off the planet.
Obviously, I think its the latter and I hope the analysts wont try to save their skins by trying to defend their original guesses. Common sense says there was never a chance of their numbers being right, and they should have corrected them a year ago.
I have never expected Tablet PCs to sell huge numbers of machines because people wanted tablet features. Lacking excellent handwriting recognition, the Tablet PC isnt terribly compelling to the average customer. And the number of customers who, today, feel they need tablet features for other reasons dont add up to a giant market.
My expectation has been, and continues to be, that Tablet PC will only sell in large numbers when it becomes a no-brainer to buy. That requires the price premium to come down to $50 to $75—a level many customers wont notice or, if they do, wont have trouble justifying. That is happening, though more slowly than Id like.
There is probably something that still needs to be done with the tablet form factor, which still always seems to add a significant potential for expensive mechanical failure into the purchase decision.
Meet these challenges—and I believe they will be met—and Tablet PCs will sell even though most people dont really need one. Tablets are useful for drawings, signatures, mark-ups, and the like, and $50 isnt too much to pay, especially when the notebook still seems inexpensive for what you get.
That the professional see-ers have just awakened to the Tablet PC reality shouldnt really change anything, though their pronouncements carry weight. Many people wont bother to parse this out and will realize its the analysts that are the problem rather than the platform.
The Tablet PC can only be a huge seller when people dont have to think twice about buying one, or when Microsoft finally gets handwriting right. I think the first will happen before the second and ultimately many—even most—notebook customers will end up with Tablet features on their new machines. Just give it a few years.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at [email protected]