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Microsoft's Craig Mundie Might Be Right about Tablets

The fangs of the punditsphere are out today, this time thirsting for the blood of Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft. Mundie said in Australia this week that the tablet market might not be around forever.

Most outlets have reported that he said that tablets are, or might be, a fad. Whether he used that word or not, we're not sure -- we haven't read the whole text of his speech (hey, it's a busy week). But here's what he definitely did say:

"I think that the phone -- the smartphone -- as it emerges more, will become your most personal computer. There's also going to be an obvious place that sort of today is where the laptop lives, that I call the 'portable desk.' And I think there's an important distinction -- and frankly one we didn't jump on at Microsoft fast enough -- between mobile and portable, where 'mobile' is something that you want to use while you're moving, and 'portable' is something you move and then use.

"And so there's -- these are going to bump into one another a little bit. And so today you can see tablets and pads and other things that are starting to live in the space in between. Personally, I don't know whether I believe that that space will be a persistent one or not."

That last sentence is the money phrase; that's where the "fad" talk is coming from. But read Mundie's comments closely. He's not necessarily saying that tablets will go away, only that they might (and probably will) evolve into something different from what they are today. We at RCPU see what he means by this.

We've often wondered for how long the tablet and the smartphone will coexist. How many people carry both an iPhone and an iPad now? How many will in a couple of years? Functionally, technically and even in terms of size, the two form factors are coming together all the time. Tablets are better at multimedia and productivity; they're also bigger and more conducive to typing with an add-on keyboard. Smartphones, though, are generally better at...well, at making phone calls, and they're more portable than tablets and more suited for travel.

We don't mean to put words in Mundie's mouth here, but he seems to be saying that some sort of tablet-smartphone love child is going to emerge at some point. Along with it will exist the PC in some sort of less portable, more powerful laptop form. So, today's tablet might not look like tomorrow's tablet, and today's smartphone might not look like tomorrow's smartphone. They might actually be the same device at some point, with elements of both form factors included. Therefore, the current "tablet" market, per se, might not exist for much longer. That's a totally reasonable perspective.

Consider the netbook, which your editor is using to type this right now. How much of a netbook "market" is there now compared to, say, in 2009? The buzz over netbooks has certainly faded, due in part to the rise of tablets, but look at the laptop market overall. Standard laptops are smaller and cheaper than they used to be. Why? In part, it's because netbooks changed the laptop market by forcing manufacturers to make regular old laptops more portable and less expensive.

Mundie's talking about evolution here, if we're reading his comments correctly, not about fads. Now, does that mean that Microsoft is well-positioned to take advantage of the evolution of the tablet-smartphone device? Oh, absolutely not. As far as we can tell, despite literally years of talk about tablets, Microsoft is as unprepared to release a serious competitor to the iPad as it has ever been. But that's another RCPU entry altogether -- one that justifies getting the fangs out.

What do you think the future will hold for the tablet? Send your thoughts to lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on March 31, 2011 at 11:57 AM