Dan Rowinski's Mobile Platform

By Dan Rowinski

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Are 'consumptive' tablets like the iPad just a fad?

Last week, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, spoke at a luncheon in Sydney, Australia, where one of the topics presented was the future of personal computing.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Mobile is something that you use while moving. Portable is something that you move, then you use. These are going to bump into each other a bit. So, today, you can see tablets and pads that are starting to live in the space in between,” Mundie said. “Personally, I don't know if that space will be a persistent one or not.”

Mundie is toeing the Microsoft company line here, and it is a perfect example of the split between Apple and Microsoft corporate cultures. Apple is about consumption over utility. Microsoft is about utility over consumption. Look at the core products. Apple has the iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac, iTunes and App Store. Microsoft has Windows 7, Office Suite, Exchange, Azure (cloud, virtualization), Lync (unified communications), various managed-services solutions, Windows Phone 7, Xbox 360 and Kinect.

In the Apple corner, MacBooks and iMacs are known to be better in the audiovisual production departments. For instance, at 1105 Government Information Group, the reporters are given Windows computers and laptops while the Web producers, copy editors and art designers are given large-screen iMacs. There are crossovers for each company. Apple is not purely consumption nor is Microsoft purely utility. Personally, I prefer my MacBook.

Mundie’s comments echo what has been coming out of the company for several years now — never mind the sparkling wizard behind the curtains, you will get more done with Windows.

“So I don't know if the big screen, tablet pad category is going to remain with us or not,” Mundie said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “The thing is, you have more natural interaction. Today, those things are being used in more of a consumptive model because they are not very good at creating stuff. So I don't know whether consumption things will remain a category by themselves or not.”

His choice of the word "consumptive" is interesting because it generally has negative connotations. To some ears, it might conjure images of tuberculosis. But even in the general sense of consuming things, it suggests waste and destruction, according to Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary. Maybe Mundie meant it innocently, but henceforth we'll use the word "consumer" anyway to help make sure this term for handheld devices that travel around doesn't catch on.

Mundie has been getting a lot of flak for his comments. Jean-Louis Gassée of MondayNote, an influential publication on the media and technology industry, wrote about Microsoft’s perhaps backward approach to these new technologies that have been disrupting its business model for years.

“‘These annoying devices can’t be ignored, we need to offer support to better keep an eye on them, but we must damn them with faint praise, and keep them in the media consumption category,” Gassée wrote as if he was using Microsoft’s voice. “By the way, we need to talk to the Adobe folks. Last week they were demoing a prototype of a 'Photoshop concept' for iPad. What are they thinking?’”

Mundie said that in the personal computing space, smart phones would be the place to be. Mundie also envisioned that computing would turn away from the station-based system — laptops and desktop PCs — and turn into entire rooms. Kind of like "Star Trek" without the food replicator thing that could combine atoms to make you a ham sandwich on request.

“They say, what is going to happen to all these devices? What is going to be your most prominent one?” Mundie said. “I think that the phone, the smart phone, as it emerges, is going to be your most personal computer. There is also going to be an obvious place, that today is where the laptop lives, that I call the portable desk.”

When I think of tablet devices, I keep coming back to a line that former NASA CTO of IT, Chris Kemp, said to me in January: “Tablets will be the gateway to the cloud.”

“Generally, I think people know how to use laptops, people know how to use phones,” Kemp said. “The applications that are going to emerge on tablets are going to be slightly better than what is on a phone or slightly different and reduced to the core functional elements than what is on a laptop. I think people will figure that out because we have a lot of experience in both the more complicated workstation laptop-based computers and the simpler phone-based systems.”

The iPad has been on the market for almost exactly a year at this point. A lot of writers and reporters have been chronicling their use of the device, to varying degrees of affinity. Richard MacManus, founder and editor-in-chief of technology blog ReadWriteWeb, wrote an article on his top 10 applications for the iPad after a year of use and found that his habits distinctly veered to consumption.

“I'm a little surprised at just how dominant media consumption apps have been for me — and in particular reading apps,” MacManus said. “It goes to show how much of an impact the iPad has had on my online media consumption habits.”

At the same time, a good portion of what the "Mobile Platform" follows on a daily basis is finding nonconsumption uses for smart phones and tablets, mostly in the enterprise/government space. There are some interesting use cases out there, such as linking field workers to home bases, managing data flows, sending pictures and videos from law enforcement or technical operators to niche experts and more. All are things that are more difficult to do with portable devices, such as laptops and netbooks, and easier with mobile devices. In that regard, tablets with larger screens and more computing power and more robust cellular radios are better suited than smart phones.

One company, Motion Computing, only makes tablets and only uses Windows 7. I spoke with the the company's vice president of marketing, Mike Stinson, about the idea of tablets as productivity and consumer tools. Stinson, obviously, was looking to show the benefits of Motion’s Windows tablets.

“Consumer tablets are basically replacing notebooks. It is sort of a relatively low-cost, secondary device. In business, it is really quite different,” Stinson said. “While it may be a secondary device or a specialized device, it is generally not being bought as a general-purpose type of thing.”

Motion Computing tablets are different from almost anything on the market. They are not in on the rush for thinner (see iPad 2 vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1), better-resolution, richer-experiences, cloud-accessible, ARM-based architectures. These are tablets built for working men. Rugged, store-and-forward, thick, bigger buttons. Motion uses Atom Oak Trail processors from Intel, one of the first instances that I have seen any Atom (Intel’s x86 counter to ARM) in use in a mobile device. They are also expensive. Three of the Windows 7 tablets listed on Motion Computing’s website are $1,899 or more. Their newest iteration, the CL900, will be “available for under $1,000 in Q2 2011,” according to the website.

The absolute highest price for an Android or Apple tablet is the 3G-enabled 64-gigabit iPad, available for $829.

It is the traditional way of making computers — x86 architecture, Windows-based, productivity-oriented, expensive. If the iPad has shown people anything, it is that people want to get away from that traditional computer system. Niche production computing is not a cost-effective model for enterprises or individuals.

“We are business-to-business. We are in, like, 40 different countries, and their starting point is from Windows,” Stinson said. “They want lightweight, they want low cost. But they also want it to run Windows.”

Representing makers of Windows-only tablets, I asked Stinson about his reaction to Mundie’s comments. Without explicitly agreeing, he basically echoed Mundie in that the consumptive tablets may not have a persistent market.

“How they are going to do their consumer response to tablets, I am not really sure. I am sure that is what the context of those articles or comments were made in,” Stinson said. “In terms of a pure consumer consumption device, we think this maybe is a fad. Obviously, they have been supporting the business tablets since 1999 or 2000. The difference is that, what has happened in the last 12 months, now that people are familiar with touch phones and checkout kiosks and iPads, we see the market for business tablets is really expanding because people are much more comfortable with touching the screen.”

Microsoft had been doing well with netbooks before the tablet wave came along. At this point, I do not really see that the company can have it both ways. The netbook market was strong, and for a couple years, they were the hottest-selling computing devices. But here is where the distinction is drawn. Netbooks still fall into the role of portable devices, little brother to the laptop. Tablets are mobile, big brother to the smart phone. They are stepchildren — siblings with different fathers. And the brother, despite being younger and less experienced, is now winning the middle market.

Microsoft does not like it. Yet, they are doing little in the immediate future about it. Rumors about Windows 8 say that Microsoft is working on an operating system that is kind of a cross between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 with the ability to support both ARM and x86 architecture and be tablet optimized. It is also rumored to not be coming along until fall 2012, more than a year from now.

In the current market, there is a question of logistics. It is not impossible to run Windows 7 on an iPad or Android tablet. Virtualization company Citrix works with most original equipment manufacturers and developers to bring its product, XenDesktop, to any device, anywhere. Citrix, in its longstanding fight with VMware, also likes to be first. Hence, the company works with most OEMs to be able to have XenDesktop and Citrix Receiver available on tablets when they launch. The iPad and iPad 2 had Citrix solutions the day they were available, as did the Android Motorola Xoom and soon the Galaxy Tab series and the BlackBerry PlayBook. No word on the Hewlett-Packard webOS-based TouchPad, but it would be fair to assume that Citrix has been working with HP as well.

Without Windows, there would be very little purpose for desktop virtualization, a la Citrix and VMware. Microsoft is basically the only reason those companies are in the desktop virtualization market at all. Yet, when Stinson says “they want them to run Windows,” he misses that Windows is not a self-contained unit. Citrix allows for tablets to access enterprise server-hosted applications and thus benefits from the cooperation of a non-Windows tablet within the enterprise back end.

“We have Web-enable-ized client/server applications,” said Tom Simmons, Citrix area vice president for U.S. public sector. “Microsoft Office is usually one of the more popular application suites that we virtualize.… When you look at the benefits of virtualizing desktops and then applications associated with those desktops, it becomes device-independent. That is really what started, five, six, seven years ago with application virtualization.”

With options like Citrix or VMware, the line between consumption and productive tablets blurs. Granted, running a virtual machine on top of a different architecture does not make for optimal application performance. But, as Stinson points out, productivity uses of tablets are generally niche-oriented gadgets. It does not make capital expenditures for a device that is only going to do one or two things well. Such is the case with Windows 7 tablets that have bulky operating systems built for portable, not mobile devices. They also lack a diverse and mobile-optimized application ecosystem and, even when Windows 8 comes along, will be miles behind both Apple and Google in that regard. When it comes to applications, Microsoft is hoping that their legacy products — the Office suite etc. — will be enough to offset the advantage that Apple and Google will have in the application space. In the meantime, there is nothing stopping developers from making killer applications that out-perform Office products. Or users could just get the Windows goodness via virtualization.

Back to Mundie’s original statement: Will there be a persistent market for consumptive tablets? I think the answer is yes. Because, if you look at the market now and how it is evolving, there really is no such thing as a consumption-only tablet. They are changing the way people consume media, and that alone will be enough to keep the market vibrant. The U.S. economy is built on consumerism, media or otherwise. Changing the way citizens consume and interact with media is a dynamic force. Outside the whole consumptive v. productive argument, the consumption habits of the average American will create a persistent market for tablet computers.

A better question to be asked, perhaps, is whether a persistent market for the productivity tablet exists. It is a niche and will probably always be a niche. Will there really be a market for bulky portable computers masquerading as mobile tablets that only function well in a couple areas?

Posted by Dan Rowinski on April 5, 2011 at 8:32 AM