Sunday 15 December 2019

Hello iPhone 6 - bye bye business tablets

Game changer: The iPhone 6
Game changer: The iPhone 6
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Friday, September 26. Remember the date: it is when the mainstream market for tablets died for Irish business users.

The significance of this particular day? It's when Apple's iPhone 6 went on sale in Ireland. And it marked the start of a mass migration from (mostly) small-screen iPhone 4S handsets to much bigger devices among Irish business people.

While some have used alternatives such as Samsung's Galaxy Note 'phablets' in recent years, the vast bulk of middle-aged 'ordinary' Irish executives - the type who were happiest with BlackBerrys and Nokias - moved over to Apple's handset. So when that company changes the screen size as radically as it has done, it brings Ireland's grey-haired decision-makers with it.

But why will this deliver a knockout blow for tablets as casual business computing devices? Because bigger phones cut out about half the usage requirements for tablets.

To be fair, tablets were always a leap of faith for most Irish business people who got one. Between 2011 and 2013, thousands of Irish companies splashed out on giving managers and executives iPads (Android tablets barely got a look in).

The idea was that they were the new, new thing. Moreover, Apple made them, so people trusted that they were probably here to stay. The corporate thinking behind this was to arm executives for a new digital productivity age.

The standard configuration given to Irish executives often constituted an iPad 2 with a padded leather (or leatherette) cover case. A keyboard was also usually part of the set-up, so that managers could 'do' email.

But there were flaws from the start. Executives, for instance, didn't use their new tools to keep up with work on the Luas: they kept driving their BMWs and using 'hands free kits'. And they didn't 'interact' with online workflows when sipping lattes in cafes: they read the paper or talked strategy with colleagues sitting beside them.

Hence, office work has largely been saved for desktops in the office or laptops at home. So what has happened to all of those iPads given out to Irish corporate executives? Privately, many executives I asked admit that they ended up giving the machines to their kids as Netflix or games screens.

Publicly, companies won't say much about it, as no one really wants to admit they haven't "leveraged new technology" effectively.

But many Irish firms have not replaced or upgraded the iPads they initially bought, as there has not been any compelling reason for them to do so.

Now, a combination of developments in the phone and laptops markets are about to squeeze the life out of the tablet as we have known it.

While many wrote laptops off, manufacturers such as Apple have reinvented the machines to becomes much lighter and much slimmer - 11-inch or 12-inch laptops (such as the MacBook Air) are not only as easy to transport as a 10-inch tablet, they now have battery lives that match tablets, at seven, eight or nine hours of use. Moreover, such laptops are far more powerful and flexible, meaning they can run high-powered software more quickly and efficiently. Even basic stuff like Microsoft Office is still quicker to use on a laptop than on a tablet. This isn't just a trend among non-technical executives. I don't know any tech executive who will entrust default online work to a tablet rather than a laptop. It just doesn't happen - tablets can't cut it.

But whatever tablets were able to do can now largely be replicated by the latest crop of large-screen phones. The iPhone 6 Plus is a case in point. I've had it almost a week and I can't imagine using an iPad or a tablet except for specialist or recreational purposes (such as photo-editing or watching movies).

My experience is not a unique one. Industry figures show tablet sales hitting a wall in the last year, the same time period that has seen people begin to shift to larger-screen phones from Samsung, Sony, HTC, Nokia and Huawei. Even Apple has been hit, with iPad sales falling year on year, an unprecedented phenomenon.

Apple executives are well aware of this. One of the company's most senior executives told me last week that the company has "no fear" about "cannibalising" its own products. He was speaking in the context of the iPhone 6 Plus's possible impact on iPad mini sales. But he could have been describing the whole tablet industry. Because there is simply no pressing need for a tablet when you have a 5.5-inch phone in your pocket.

This is not to write off tablets altogether. In the consumer world, they will continue to sell well. (They are now the default electronic gift for children because of their use as games machines and second screens for movies.)

And in some niche areas, such as education, tablets are continuing to show strong growth.

Also, it is foolish to write off any product category that Apple retains a strong development interest in: it is still possible that Apple will pull a new tablet configuration - or usage case - out of the bag at a scheduled event next month.

But for the ordinary working executive in Ireland, it looks like the era of the tablet was a very, very short one.

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