Tablet overdose won't kill netbooks

Some publications are reporting on May research by Nielson that suggests the average consumer is dropping other electronics for the tablet computer. Should we be surprised? Not at all.

The idea of a tablet is an extension to consumer computing, a reinvented way to make it feel fresh, intuitive and fun again, which will pair nicely with the next wave of internet applications. It will not kill netbooks or desktop PCs but it is certain to eat into their share, as it is according to Nielson, at least for now.

Firstly, marketers and manufacturers have clocked onto the astounding money-making success of the iPad. As with other breakthrough Apple product, regardless of how you feel about the company, it reinvented a promising notion that had not realised its potential.

The wave of hype surrounding the surge of tablet computing as a trend topic has been impossible to miss: when Steve Jobs announced the first iPad it made the majority news agenda on plenty of national papers, rather than put away in the cupboard at the back of a broadsheet or a technology supplement. In some it sat on the front page next to Raoul Moat.

Whether you like it or not, the technology, along with expert marketing and quetionable but effective media management, had broken the mainstream and eventually piqued the interest of the public.

Now here we are, with imitators that are good machines but have not yet managed to topple Apple’s product.

At home, think of a tablet computer as a modern-day coffee table book replacement. The overpriced, shiny, aesthetically pleasing choice for a centre-piece to keep in the living room.

But it’s also light, it’s portable and it’s… actually useful. 

Tablets don’t so much signify a change in the way we use the web, instead extending and improving on the accessibility, usability that the average user wants. Think of questions on forums or made by friends in social situations, which will be met with “Google it”. A tablet, like their cousin the smartphone, at least appears to cut out the processes that get in the way.

A tablet is just “on” provided there’s battery in it, and the better-made products are user-friendly enough to make you want to use them.

Some people say that the tablet is what the netbook was supposed to be. And that is certainly true for a portion of the electronics-buying market. Netbooks were never going to be the kind of device that transformed the way we go online or compute. They are, however, good for work.

Tablets are machines for play: social networking, finding out the name of that TV show that’s been bugging you, playing a quick round of a casual game, screwing around on the train or interacting with electronics in a visually appealing and satisfying way.

To call the tablet a toy can be perceived as an insult, but really that is what they are. And there’s nothing wrong with that – leisure is fine and something that will encourage more people to enjoy technology rather than view it as a means to the end of a spreadsheet.

UK newspaper the Independent cites a figure in the Nielson study about netbook owners. “Five percent of netbook owners with a tablet said they had stopped using the device all together since buying a tablet,” the paper says, while an “additional 23 percent” used their netbooks less frequently than before. 

These will be the users who bought a netbook as a portable go-to device for casual computing. It makes sense for them to drop the comparatively clunky netbook for a sleek device that makes computing slick and fun. 

But there will still be the core group of people who prefer a netbook for certain practicalities. They have different applications to tablets. Essay writing and extensive research, as well as note taking, are perfect on netbooks. Though there are Bluetooth keyboards available for tablets, we still doubt the sense of lugging around two devices so you can have the functionality of one.

Students will continue to require portable PCs. Writers will need them. Office workers out of hours will still need them. They are popular in emerging markets for their low cost.

It is inevitable that some of the market is cannibalised – but tablets will not be the straw that broke the netbook’s back.

*EyeSee Yes, porpoises, we know.

The generally asocial harbour porpoise prefers a netbook, as it rarely tweets.

But the vain finless porpoise finds the touchscreen UI intuitive, and frequently checks its Facebook to untag unflattering aquarium photos.