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BlackBerry CEO unfairly mocked for questioning tablets’ dominion

John Cox | May 2, 2013
BlackBerry CEO Thorstein Heins mentioned in a Bloomberg interview Tuesday that he thought that "In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore." He was quickly denounced for ignoring the iPad, not owning up to the failure of BlackBerry's own PlayBook tablet, and in general for "trashtalking" tablets and "being hopelessly out of touch."

That fits with the assessment of Asymcos Horace Dediu. Tablets have proven very popular because they fit within certain consumption niches, he says. They are comfortable and very functional in settings in which other products are less so. In other words, they are hired to do a job that few other products do well. Some of these jobs are in the workplace and some are at home.

Where Heins may be mistaken, he suggests, is in apparently believing that people want, or need, or can afford only one device. If you only could have one device then perhaps a smartphone would be the best single option, but users are increasingly using multiple devices, Dediu says. Just like families tend to have more than one car, it makes sense, given the price, for people to use more than one device and use the best product in a given setting.

History has shown that when a new form factor emerges it does not become the exclusive option, he adds. Consider how laptops have taken root: at first they were not very good PCs with many compromises but over time they became great PCs. That does not mean that there are no desktops anymore. So people will own multiple computers and multiple tablets and phones.

Another analyst suggests Heins had a more limited market in mind: the enterprise. Heins comments were foolish, but I dont think he meant to say that nobody will be using tablets in five years, says Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis. Rather [hes saying] that hes unclear how BlackBerry can be successful with enterprise tablets in that timeframe.

Somewhat surprisingly, Greengart actually agrees with Heins up to a point. Thats far more reasonable: many knowledge workers really wont be using tablets in five years, he says. Theyll be using devices connected to a larger display. Some of those devices may be traditional laptops or desktops, and some may be phones or tablets. If Heins doesnt think BlackBerry will be successful in that space, who am I to argue?

But given the fact that many of those devices will be owned by employees, why wouldnt the same dynamic of using a personal mobile device in conjunction with an available big screen be present outside the office as within it? If yes, then its at least conceivable that buying decisions could change.

So Heins seems to be right in saying that tablets so far have not proven to be a good business model, for everyone but Apple. And hes certainly right in saying that the tablet market is challenging because its very difficult to make money on hardware alone, for everybody but Apple.


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