The more tablets I see, the less I know about the market

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Seems like everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know.

Those lyrics from Michael Franti’s “Say Hey” ran through my head as I navigated the crowded aisles of the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in search of new tablets. I found plenty of them – but the question publishers should ask is, to what end?

The tablet explosion we’re witnessing this week is a classic case of a solution in search of a problem – or at least in search of a target audience. The vendors weren’t all that helpful in defining the space for me. In the Panasonic booth, where the electronics manufacturer was showing off prototypes of its three new Viera tablets, I asked the rep who was demonstrating one device for me who the new tablets were targeted at. After a long pause he said, “I don’t know.”

Tech talk

Instead, the manufacturers resort to reciting tech specs. Understandable, perhaps, since we’re at a technology conference, but it would help if they had some concept of who will actually be using these devices.

In the ViewSonic booth, following a marketing manager’s excited discourse about the operating system, processor, dual-boot capabilities, camera, screen resolution and other specs of the company’s new line of ViewPads, the attendee he was pitching responded, “That all sounds great, but I didn’t understand half of what you just said, and I don’t think consumers will either.” The ViewSonic marketer later said to me, “Clearly we have some work to do on the messaging.”

Technically, just about all the tablets on display at CES were impressive in some way. The devices ranged in display size from 4 inches (Panasonic, ViewSonic) to nearly 12 (Toshiba). One had an extendable keyboard and a tilt display that quickly transmogrified the tablet into a netbook (Samsung); another had two 7-inch screens that folded together like a book (NEC).

Several were running current versions of Android; one (the Motorola Xoom) was running the forthcoming Honeycomb version that Google has designed specifically for tablets. A few were running Windows 7 – and therefore are likely to be more business-oriented. Two tablets (the ViewSonic ViewPad 10 and the Lenovo IdeaPad U1) run both Windows and Android. And one (the BlackBerry PlayBook) runs its own proprietary OS.

A muddied market

Beyond the specs, however, the picture was much less clear. The takeaway: Publishers should be wary of devoting too many resources to any of these tablets until the market matures. While it may be tempting to strike exclusive deals or invest heavily in content tuned for 4- or 7-inch screens, the safer short-term play involves focusing on iPad or Android’s established app stores or developing largely generic digital editions for platform-independent digital newsstands. We’re waiting for more news on PixelMags’ plans to launch such a newsstand, and of course, we breathlessly await Next Issue Media’s entry.

The tablets debuting at CES will certainly help to drive down pricing and increase the market for touch-screen devices. But they won’t do much to define what that market actually is (which in turn will influence the types of content publishers choose to develop for them) until manufacturers can more effectively articulate why they should replace/augment your phone/netbook/notebook.

Here are some product photos from the show floor; videos to come.

Samsung Sliding PC:

Samsung Sliding PC

NEC LT-W Cloud Communicator:

NEC LT-W Android Cloud Communicator

Panasonic 10-, 7- and 4-inch Viera tablets:

Panasonic Viera tablets

Toshiba 12.1-inch Windows 7 tablet:

Toshiba Windows 7 tablet

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