Disruptive technology in action: tablet computing

Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive technology in his book titled The Innovator’s Dillema, which became one of Forbes’ 20 most influential business books. In essence, disruptive technology is an initially inferior technology that grows to displace the incumbent technologies and causes complete re-shuffling of the industry landscape around the incumbent technologies. It’s given that disruptive technologies are not one-time phenomenon. It happens all the time. And it’s happening now. And it will happen in the future. Right now, one such disruptive technology is tablet computing

Gigahertz war

Photo by vicu
AMD Athlon introduction started the Gigahertz war. Photo by vicu

By late 1990s, the Personal Computing (PC) industry was well established with dominant players like Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Dell, Compaq, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, etc. Then, at that time, AMD, one of the maker of x86-compatible microprocessors, released its Athlon product which was faster on many bench marks compared to market-leading product, Pentium III from Intel. This escalated into an arms race between AMD and Intel, and by 2003, Personal Computers were powered by 3+ Ghz microprocessors, which is way more than what is needed by most people for doing their homework or browsing internet or playing computer games. The hardware even got too powerful for corporate users who only need to work with e-mails, document word processing, and spread sheets, that the time was ripe for companies like NComputing to grow fast by providing ways to share the too-powerful computers among several colleagues for cost efficiency. The only applications able to max out all the fire power of that kind of PCs were advanced computer games which were aiming for more and more visual reality. Hence, the Gigahertz war was also accompanies by bitter fight on the hardware 3D accelerator video adapters by the likes of 3dfx, NVidia, and ATI

Attempts to intercept 10x changes

Only The Paranoids Survive is a book by Andy Grove, employee number 3 of Intel Corporation, and is considered one of 100 best business books of all time. In the book, it explains about how to go through strategic inflection points, where the whole industry landscape can be completely shaken up. One of the key to handle this is experimentation. And knowing that a disruptive technology can appear at any time, the market leaders of the PC industry experimented on quite a few new things to make sure they survive in the long run.

Photo by Janto Dreijer
HP TC1100 running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Photo by Janto Dreijer

One of the attempts was the launching of Microsoft Windows XP Tablet Edition in 2002. The launch of this product tries to re-imagine the future usage of PCs, in which only a display screen was present and all input using stylus (as well as output) are done through that display. Quite a few manufacturers jumped into the band wagon and created device for this Operating System, mostly by creating convertible laptops that can convert themselves into tablet. However, this attempt met limited success as the the price of the unit is on the high end of the market

Photo by Coaster J
Samsung Q1 Ultra-Mobile PC. Photo by Coaster J

Another attempt was made in 2006 by the release of the Ultra-Mobile Personal Computer (UMPC) specification. This time, aside from making the tablet PC smaller, there was also emphasis on touch input (using fingers instead of stylus) and low-power Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) processors for longer battery life and more portability. This was also met with limited success due to the higher price that the UMPC units demand.

Starting in 2007, another change was happening in the PC market with the introduction of netbooks, essentially notebook computers with ULV processors and smaller size and less components (e.g. no DVD drive). With the entry of this new category to the market, the netbook pricing was essentially similar to desktop computers, while offering portability, even though at the cost of performance. This marks the shift to portable Personal Computing due to continuing downward pressure on laptop price exerted by the economy of scale it was achieving

Disruptive technology arrived

Photo by Jim Cianca
iPad. Photo by Jim Cianca

Seemingly parallel to the development above, Apple Inc was researching a better tablet computer. However, realising that all the technologies they had on their tablet computer could also made a revolutionary phone, they released the technologies as iPhone first in 2007. By doing that, they would protect their position in portable music player (iPod) as well as digital music store (iTunes) from possible invasion from mobile phone industry. The release of their tablet computer, iPad, happened in 2010. The idea was to deliver a computing device that can do what most people like to do on their computers (like browsing internet, playing game, or maybe doing homework) but which is much easier to use: just use your fingers. It is massively under-powered compared to top-of-the-line PCs in 2010, and there are many things it couldn’t do such as print on your printers, but it is way more portable than UMPC or netbook and is very easy to use. Helped by the hype produced by iPhone, iPad sales sky-rocketed.

Motorola Xoom Android tablet. Photo by Ben Miller
Motorola Xoom Android tablet. Photo by Ben Miller

Hot on Apple‘s tail was Google, whose Android Operating System was a catch-up to Apple’s iOS powering its iPhone (Google had to take very different direction on Android as soon as iPhone’s capabilities were announced). Its Android Operating System was powering multitudes of phone manufacturers’ products. As iPad was launched, multiple manufacturers started making tablet computers based on Google Android Operating System

Market shake-up

By 2011, PC industry has been a very competitive arena for a while. Even Hewlett-Packard (HP), which had become largest PC player after its acquisition of Compaq in 2002, was mulling divestment of its PC business. Meanwhile, tablet sales continued to rise, and Personal Computer sales began its undeniable constant decline. By the end of 2011, iPad was already selling more units than HP was selling PCs. By early 2013, Dell, which was once the world’s largest PC maker, were fighting its share-holder activists who wanted to oust Michael Dell, the founder, for failing to fight the decline in PC business. In mid-2013, Microsoft announced a completely new direction in facing the future with plan to convert the company into a device & services company.

Microsoft Surface Windows 8 tablet. Photo by Intel Free Press
Microsoft Surface Windows 8 tablet. Photo by Intel Free Press

Microsoft brings unique approach to the tablet computing arena though: it brings to bear the full power of Windows Operating System to tablet. Remember that iPad or Android-based tablets sometimes can’t perform basic functions like printing to a printer or transferring documents via flash disk. With Windows 8 tablets, however, customer can do on tablet everything they were able to do on desktops or laptops: printing, plugging-in USB mouse, run computing-intensive applications like Adobe PhotoShop, or even code using VisualBasic or NetBeans. The last statistics by Gartner from 2013 indicates that PC business still continues its unstoppable decline by 8% while tablet business experiences mind-blowing growth of 53%. The decline of the PC has been cushioned by corporate needs, as PC will continue to be the device of choice in that area, except for their mobile work force. But the trend is not expected to change anytime soon. An industry has just been disrupted


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