Three months after hearing everyone at the Mobile World Congress rave about every possible flavor of tablet likely to blanket the global market, I've got to say the alleged multi-brand omnipresence seems to be still alleged, at least where I am.
The other day, I walked around Barcelona with fellow EBN blogger Marc Herman to get a sense of what tablet computers were out there. We're both in the market for one, weighing the pros and cons of different features, form factors, and functionality against, say, next-generation smartphones. We wanted to get them in our hands and play with them before buying. I expected to toy with dozens of options. I was surprised, and disappointed, by what we found.
Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) is still, clearly, the gorilla. Considering the company can spend a gazillion dollars to secure parts, and it ranks as the world’s most valuable brand, its mammoth presence is understandable. But it was a slight curve ball for me in a place like Europe, where monopolistic practices are frequently shunned. The only tablets we found at two FNACs we visited were iPads. Historically, FNAC (a large French department store) had a decent electronics equipment selection, which is why we went there in the first place. But judging by the large Apple icon on the wall, I guess that's no longer the case. (For the record, FNAC's corporate online store has many more options available.)
It wasn't much better out on the street. Pickings were slim, too, at mom-and-pop electronics boutiques -- and there are plenty lining the 1.5-kilometer stretch locally touted as an urban heaven for gadget lovers. Besides the iPad, we saw only a small smattering of tablets, including Samsung's Galaxy, Toshiba’s Folio, some e-readers (which aren't tablets, right?), and a couple of lesser-known brands, like Point of View’s Mobii (honestly, I was so distracted trying to figure if "Mobii" was stylized with two letter is or two lower-case Roman numerals that I can’t remember any of the specs).
I'm totally perplexed about who the heck sells these things and where I should go for a demo. Logic points to places that sell PCs, laptops, notebooks, and netbooks since, in my head, tablets are similar to these devices. But, of course, there's the convergence effect, which makes it difficult to define and categorize new-generation platforms. In Barcelona, and I suspect elsewhere, mobile phone operators jumping on the tablet trend seem to want to bundle offerings in some sort of contractual way, although I didn’t stop to read the shop window signs too closely. What really made me do a double-take was seeing a tablet (I can't remember which one) lined up next to speakers and other audio equipment. Why would a store specializing in audio equipment be selling tablets?
While tablets are popping up, even if right now it's only to a small degree, maybe it's not quite the global event most analysts brag about. As I ponder the situation, all kinds of "maybes" swirl through my mind. Maybe I'm a willing buyer in a very young market. Maybe many potential brands are moving through the production pipeline and will come out this summer in time for back-to-school sales. Maybe the Japanese earthquake has slowed supply to most non-US end markets. Maybe cash-strapped and jobless consumers are simply not ready to slap down 200 to 500 Euros (the average price range we encountered) for a glitzy device that’s not completely necessary.
Spain, for instance, has a whopping 21.3 percent unemployment rate; 4.9 million people are out of work. That has had a huge ripple effect on companies; UK-based Dixons Retail recently announced that it would shutter its 34 PC City stores in Spain and ax as many as 1,200 jobs because of sluggish consumer electronics sales. Clearly, paying rent and buying groceries are more important than reading a newspaper or sending an email from some touch screen-enabled black box that has tech-happy San Francisco or Tokyo going gaga.
Undoubtedly, the tide will turn, and I'm certain that within a few quarters, I will be sick of hearing about the tablet segment's raging success. For now, though, I can't help but wonder about the current disconnect. The trend in front of me is lopsided, and the short-term promises I heard a few months ago don't seem to ring completely true.
Are anticipated growth expectations totally realistic in most of the recession-battered world? How are supply chain managers and tech companies evaluating these trends? Are they planning for a post-recession, pent-up demand surge, or for zoning in regions where quick adoption seems most likely?
In any case, I hope OEMs get on with it already. I've got a compulsive buyer's itch to scratch, and if I can't find what I'm looking for, I'll either take a temporary pass, or not buy at all.