Tue, 10 Jun 2003

Tablet PCs ride the waves of success

Mahendra Gautama, Contributor, Jakarta

Product innovations, apart from giving consumers a new experience, are basically intended to give them new and, often, unexpected benefits. Satisfied customers are a sure path to reaping more profits, while maintaining customer loyalty becomes much easier.

Two basic factors, however, affect the success rate of an innovation.

The first factor is a company's ability to understand consumers' needs from a new point of view and then provide them products or services packaged in a unique way in answer to what may vaguely exist only at a subconscious level in the consumers' minds.

MTV, for example, responded to the youth segment's requirement for an entirely different kind of entertainment on television. Richard Brandson, the founder and leader of Virgin branded products and services, is another enterprising example. For his airline, Virgin Atlantic, in 1984, he came up with a stunning idea that flying should not be monotonous. Virgin Atlantic was the first airline that provided its passengers with free wine, non-stop video and audio entertainment, Nintendo games and free bags for the young passengers to name just a few of the airline's perks.

The second factor, obviously, is timing. By now, marketers should be fully aware that many innovative products have failed due to poor timing. Newton is one example. The name Newton may bring to mind one of the greatest scientists or physicists of our time. Well, in fact, Newton was the name of a Personal Data Assistant (PDA) introduced by Apple Computers way back in 1993. The product did not last long in the market as it was ahead of its time and, hence, was killed in 1998.

But look at what is happening today. With a perfect sense of timing, one of the world's leading companies in handheld computers, Palm, launched its PDAs in 1998, that soon became an essential part of the business world. Palm's success was soon followed by other major manufacturers. This proves that innovation is not enough. Right timing of "delivery" to consumers is no less important.

Another story about great timing is the launch of a mobile computing product -- Tablet PC -- on November 7, 2002 in New York by some of the world's major manufacturers: Microsoft, Acer, Fujitsu, Hewlett Packard and Toshiba.

Although each manufacturer's product boasts a number of different or unique features, the general configuration is basically similar. Tablet PCs are sold in two formats: the "convertible" model with an integrated keyboard and a display that rotates 180 degrees and can be folded down over the keyboard, and the "slate" style with a removable keyboard.

Digital ink allows users to input information by writing or drawing with a stylus directly on the screen. It is very easy to use, just like jotting notes on a piece of paper. Launch the new Windows Journal application and a legal pad-like interface pops up on the screen. Write on the display and the text appears. Click on the eraser icon, swipe, and text disappears. Journal notes can be sent by e-mail. Handwritten notes can also be highlighted, formatted and converted to text.

Another unique feature of the Tablet PC is its size. It is much smaller than conventional laptops. Comparatively, it is also lighter. With all its advantages, the Tablet PC makes even the coolest laptops look antiquated.

Within three months of its launch, more than 72,000 Tablet PCs were already sold as reported by IDC, a research company based in Framingham. Another important factor -- the existing market trend -- was the reason behind the initially huge sales.

In their best-selling book "Beyond Mobile: People, Communications and Marketing in a mobilized world", Mats Lindgren, Jorgen Jedbratt and Erika Svensson wrote that basically there are four major trends in the development of mobile computers.

The first trend is miniaturization that includes reduction of weight and dimension.

The second trend is the increase of user-friendliness of design and features.

Convergence is the third trend, meaning mobile computers are not only intended for use during work, but also as an entertainment and communication medium.

Lastly, digitalization will be the key word for every type of mobile computer. Its usage as a writing tool will also be digitalized.

The increase in the current mobile business workforce has also contributed to the successful sales of Tablet PCs. This is confirmed by a report titled "Mobile technologies and the consumer 2000" issued by The Yankee Group which mentioned that the majority of businesspeople are relying more on mobile computers both at their offices and outside their business premises. The report also indicated how a mobile business workforce spent his or her working time as follows: 71 percent in his or her own office, 21 percent in public places, 6 percent at a coworker or colleague's place and 2 percent in meetings.

A difference was also shown between the business workforce with local mobility and those with long-range mobility. The first uses mobile computers for business purposes within a small radius locally and also for entertainment, but less for communication such as e-mails or faxes. The latter, of course, uses them more for e-mails, faxes and communication not only within his or her country, but even globally, and less for entertainment.

In spite of the initial success of the Tablet PC, as reflected by sales figures, a tremendous amount of hard work is in store for its marketers to achieve the success level of conventional PCs in the early 1990s.

This is confirmed by Bill Gates, who said: "Tablets will be the most popular form of PC sold in America, but not for another five years or so." Time and again in the history of marketing, the success of any innovation or innovative product lies in the hands of consumers, who are often the final and merciless judges. Even Bill Gates cannot refute this fact.