This is the week that the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) takes over my life. I fly out tomorrow for a week of being buried in products and losing the ability to walk. This is a truly painful show to cover because the physical distance it spans is of epic proportions and I no longer have epic legs. However, one of the interesting early trends is the number of companies trying to vie for the position of being the next Apple. At the top of the list are RIM, HP, Samsung, Vizio and Lenovo. Of the five, three could potentially target business-RIM, HP and Lenovo. We know about the RIM Playbook, but we don't know about the HP Palm tablet yet (it did bring out a Windows 7 tablet and sold out of it last year) and we just learned of the ThinkPad tablet, which could be the one to beat for business.
The Business Market for Tablets
The business market for tablets has historically been rather limited to forms-based businesses like health care and insurance, as well as for manufacturing tasks such as inventory. After a big push to take tablets mainstream in the early part of the last decade, buyers decided they didn't need the heavier, more expensive screens and fell back to more traditional models. It is this core business market that appeared to initially get excited about the HP Windows 7 tablet because, costing around $800, it was vastly more affordable that the $1,500 to $2,500+ products that firms had been buying, and it was generally lighter and performed about as well.
The iPad suggests that there may be a bigger market for business, but there are two classes of products targeting this opportunity. One is the tablet we've been talking about, which moves on price, battery life and visual capability. The other is the emerging class of smartbook, which has similar advantages, but trades off the touchscreen for the more common built-in keyboard and trackpoint interface. Both devices have the 10-hour+ battery life, very light sub-3lb carry weight and target prices under $500.
Power of ThinkPad
ThinkPad is arguably the most well-regarded of the laptop brands. Of the analyst/advocates I travel with, about half carry ThinkPads, about a quarter carry Dell laptops and about a quarter carry a mix of Apple laptops and iPads. ThinkPad is built to meet semi-hardened specifications, and while it was priced at a premium after being purchased by Lenovo, prices have come down to competitive levels, while quality has remained consistently high.
If you were going to bring out a tablet and target it at business, there is no stronger brand or reputation to tie the new product to.
We'll have full details later in the week, but expect the ThinkPad tablet to meet the requirements of being robust, black and secure in order to conform to the ThinkPad brand and line. Expect it to have some software enhancements, which often come with ThinkVantage as well to improve manageability, connectivity and security. Also expect some unique innovations similar to those at last year's CES with the IdeaPad U1, which embraced, uniquely, both the light tablet and the smartbook capabilities in a single product. Be aware that any real Android offering will have to wait until the Honeycomb release, which is due in the second half of the year. So much of what we'll be seeing from all of the vendors with regard to that platform is still some months off in final form.
Wrapping Up: Mature iPad-like Product in Second Half
The one thing to keep in mind as we watch all of the excitement surrounding CES, is that the real competitors to the iPad won't be showing up until the second half of the year and after the iPad 2 is released. All of them will likely be multi-core, sport a variety of cameras, have 10+ hours of battery life and more affordable prices. With presales on products like the Notion Ink Adam selling out in hours (I'm a big fan of the outdoor capability of this product) the market for tablets seems hotter than ever. The question to consider before they show up at your company's door is whether you and your folks really want a tablet or, like it was in the early 90s, do you really want a lighter laptop-like device with a really long battery life. Watching how many people have married their iPads to wireless keyboards, I'm thinking the latter may actually be the case. A product that could do both might have an advantage.