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  • Are We Now Entering the Post-PC Era?

    April 15th, 2011

    So this week came reports that PC sales, both in the U.S. and worldwide, had declined for most companies during the last quarter. Well, that is except for Apple and a few others. Sure, these are surveys that may not reflect the entire sales picture, but it’s not the same as a long-term forecast, where accuracy often goes down the tubes.

    While Apple’s actual total sales won’t be known until next week, early reports indicate that loads and loads of MacBook Airs and the refreshed MacBook Pros are still being shipped to customers. All this despite whatever impact the iPad 2 is having on the PC industry.

    Now a single quarter may not necessarily indicate a permanent industry trend. It may well be that, with the dreadful effects of the worldwide economic slowdown still being felt, there must be an ebb and flow of PC sales. But I rather think that the era of juggernaut PC sales increases are becoming history, but it may be an extremely slow trend downhill, and it’s not yet certain how much impact the iPad has had, though, it might be a lot.

    Of course, many of the so-called analysts in the media and financial community will talk about tablets as if it’s some ephemeral category that’s being embraced by loads of players in the industry. But the sad, to them, reality is that nearly all that traffic is being directed at the iPad 2. Apple is still struggling to get them into the stores. The delay in online orders from Apple has halved, estimated now at two to three weeks, with no sign demand is abating anytime soon. The impact to raw component supplies for Apple as the result of the Japanese earthquake isn’t yet certain.

    Sure, there are lots of tablet contenders out there. Just this week, the first reviews of the long-promoted RIM BlackBerry Playbook appeared, and they don’t auger well for its success. This after one of RIM’s co-CEOs staged a meltdown during an interview show, where he was was asked software questions, and demanded that it stop.

    Now I have nothing against RIM, but I see trouble afoot. Their executive team is completely unable to enunciate a coherent strategy for the future. They announced the PlayBook months in advance, while disputing reports of battery life troubles and other difficulties.

    Although the PlayBook essentially matches the price of the Wi-Fi versions of the iPad, RIM is charging that amount for a 7-inch version, not the iPad’s 9.7 inch form factor. So you get less value for the same money. If that seems ludicrous to you, stay with me. I’m just getting started.

    Despite RIM’s denials of sub-par battery life, they’re delivering 50% to 60% of what you get on the iPad and iPad 2. Maybe five to six hours isn’t so bad, but you’d think power requirements of a smaller display ought to offer enough power savings to allow the PlayBook to manage ten hours. But it can’t.

    The reviews, from the likes of David Pogue of The New York Times, Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, and Ed Baig of USA Today, all describe a product that has the inevitable beta stench to it, a gadget clearly rushed to market before it was ready. There’s not even an email app. For that, you have to create a “bridge” to a regular BlackBerry. I suppose you could say that RIM is hoping for two sales, rather than one. But the long and short of it is that you may not expect the first version of a new computing device to be perfect, but it ought to do the basics reliably, and missing features and OS instability don’t make a good first impression.

    Does RIM believe that millions of potential customers are going to tolerate an unfinished device when they can buy something with a larger screen, more spit and polish, and a huge repository of ready-made apps that support the tablet form factor? And at the same price?

    Yes, I suppose there are positives about the PlayBook. The reviews describe a snappy, well-designed interface, with credible performance. The case is attractive enough, so you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to carry one into the living room or office. But RIM should be embarrassed about foisting the PlayBook on the public before it was ready. Did they really expect few would notice?

    I suppose you could argue that the very first iPhones and iPads needed a little work. But they were both fully functional out of the box, and all of the essentials in terms of built-in apps were already working reliably. Let’s call both 98% solutions, knowing it will take a few months to deal with the remaining 2%. But if you want to accept those numbers, PlayBook comes in at, well, maybe 75% or so.

    This puts RIM in an uncomfortable position. They can’t pretend the PlayBook can match the iPad 2, let alone beat Apple at their own game. Instead, the PlayBook smacks of a product that RIM felt they had to push into the stores, for otherwise they’d be left out of the unstoppable march to tablet adoption.

    Perhaps existing BlackBerry users will be willing to give RIM’s new gadget a try, particularly if they are highly satisfied with the smartphone they have now. Perhaps these same customers might also be willing to tolerate missing apps and other features, and have the patience to wait a few months for the software to be fleshed out. Others might just pass it by, or if they buy one, they’ll be more apt to seek a refund, and cross anything with the RIM brand name on it from their future shopping lists.

    But if someone wants a tablet computer that just works, so far Apple’s iPad 2 is way ahead of the game. More to the point, it’s the harbinger of the future of the PC industry. Indeed, it may well be that the current sales slowdown is the biggest evidence to date of the beginning of the post-PC era.



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