November 30, 2009

The Tablet Business Is Clearly Not Easy Business

We are nearing the end of 2009, and the world of tablet PCs is just as fuzzy as it was at the beginning of this year. Despite continued rumormongering and finger waving about guesses on what Cupertino has planned, Apple's long-anticipated tablet remains unseen and more discussion has been devoted to its reported slips than has been made about its potential specifications. Meanwhile, as you no doubt saw, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch made the abrupt announcement this morning that the CrunchPad project had been put to rest before it was able to debut - the victim of relationships gone awry between client and vendor. While the two examples are significantly different, they both demonstrate how hard it has been for companies big or small to make headway into this space.

Despite seeing only the earliest of prototypes, and not ever seeing the product run myself, I was bullish on the CrunchPad's potential for a few reasons. The first was due to its promised low cost, starting at $299, and later said to be closer to $400. The second was the recognition that computing is moving away from the folders and desktop metaphor, and more to a Web-centric cloud (as discussed with Apple vs. Google), with applications running on Web services instead of CPUs. Third, I wanted the opportunity not to avoid Apple, but to support a new challenger - as I saw a respected peer and occasional acquaintance try to take the leap from creating content to creating hardware.

As I mentioned in a pair of posts in July, I said I was leaning to choose CrunchPad over Apple, and guessed Mike could be as much known for the success of the device as he has been for the success of his blog network, if it were to take off. Now, barring a complete reversal, it looks like not only can't I get my hands on a CrunchPad, but we won't get to see Mike and his team fight the operational and sales challenges common in any hardware firm.

These challenges look to be exacerbated when you add the word "tablet" - either due to the challenging engineering demands on cramming so much utility in a slim technology device, reducing costs, or in finding the right market. Even if I find the concept of a tablet intriguing, I am still wondering where I would put a laptop down, and pick up a tablet, or when I would holster the iPhone and pick the tablet up. It occupies an uncomfortable middle ground which hasn't yet been solved, in mass, by manufacturers keen on penetrating the space. Even Google's Chrome OS, which looks like a clear candidate for such a project, looks to be focused on NetBooks, which are not quite tablets and not quite laptops. Once you divide up the potential market, it's one full of slivers, without much pie.

Unlike others who are calling the CrunchPad vaporware, I am not. I see no good coming from seeing this product never reach the market. Even if it were to have shipped and not found dramatic traction, it would have had a chance, and given customers choice.