Cutting Room: Nice product, but where’s the market?


There were plenty of tablet devices on show at Mobile World Congress recently, but are the manufacturers confident of the market they’re selling to?

My memory of last week’s Mobile World Congress begins not with that first impressive sight of the site itself, or even with the opening exchanges from the manufacturers’ Sunday night press conferences. It starts the evening before, outside an Irish bar in Barcelona, sat with Team Mobile News – wetting our whistles, refuelling and contemplating the week ahead.

As we sat there, three regular (just about)-looking guys having a beer outside a pub, a few desperate-looking street sellers offered us their wares. The first guy approached with flowers. Strangely, neither I nor the two hotshot reporters I was with were in the mood for buying a rose for one another.

Barely two minutes later another guy turned up. He was carrying a pile of plastic fedora hats, the kind you might find in a shop marked “for all your party needs”. Again, much to this guy’s disappointment, none of us were tempted by the sparkly blue hat that topped the pile.

The problem with these street hawkers was that, although they had something to sell, and buckets of enthusiasm to sell it (particularly the flowers guy!) they failed to identify that there was zero market-potential for their products in three beery blokes sat outside a pub.

And that, rather convolutedly, takes us to MWC itself, where we saw more hawking of products, albeit on a slightly more complicated scale. But here, too, there were questions of whether those selling were 100 per cent sure of the market’s desire to purchase their products.

The Congress saw a plethora of tablet launches – HTC Flyer, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, LG Optimus Pad, Motorola XOOM. All are squaring up to face each other and the iPad.

Each, of course, claims to have the edge – in our MWC coverage on page 25 you will see Motorola dismissed its rival tablets as “giant phones”. It claims its first use of Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) will see it as the leader in this space. The LG Optimus Pad, like its new handsets, is using 3D and this effect in combination with the larger screen could prove a winner. Certainly  LG thinks that this differentiation will succeed  over its rivals’ strategies.

Other important factors will come into play when it comes to desire to buy a tablet – size of screen will be a key decision for consumers. Apple’s Steve Jobs has dismissed seven-inch screens, the size of the HTC Flyer, as “dead on arrival” – ie, too big as a phone, too small as a tablet. Samsung’s updated Tab, launched at MWC, is a 10-inch version, increasing from the original seven, though it has reportedly said it will continue to launch a variety of sizes.

And there are already questions of just what price these tablets should be selling for to be “iPad killers”. If the likes of Motorola XOOM or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 go for a higher price than the iPad, they’d better be pretty confident in the USPs of their products given the strength of the Apple brand. In its fiscal results for the quarter ended December 25, Apple announced it had sold 7.33 million iPads. Perhaps even more worrying for iPad rivals is the news that Orange and T-Mobile have slashed the price of the iPad to a standard £99 when purchased on a 24-month contract, fuelling speculation the iPad2 is set to launch
in 2011.

Add to this anecdotal evidence that retailers are wary about overstocking the new ranges of tablets and it seems, despite hype from MWC, there are still plenty of uncertainties around tablet strategies. Manufacturers are hoping they’ve got iPad killers on their hands – not the tablet equivalent of a sparkly blue hat.