Not a Phone, Not a PC: Finding the Tablet Niche

I am not a fan of semantic arguments. After all, as the parent of a particularly wily daughter, I feel that I spent the last decade and a half parsing words just to clarify commands. "Well, you didn't really say that I couldn't..." "When you said I was 'grounded,' that meant I just had to stay in the neighborhood, right?" "When you said we would go to Chuck E. Cheese 'sometime," didn't you mean this afternoon?" And of course the countless battles over the what is and isn't "fair."

The fact that I have an iPhone and she doesn't continues to be an injustice on a massive scale. The names of notoriously repressive regimes have been known to drop during these arguments. And the feelers have already gone out for whether I am getting an iPad 2, because "at least" I could pass to her the coveted iPad to make amends. At the very least.  

Whether the iPad is itself a "mobile" device is a current argument that gets bogged down and likely diminished by the terminology. It came up more than once at the Mobile Insider Summit last week. I have to admit that until then I hadn't really taken the debate very seriously as it is currently expressed. I always assumed the tablet is a variety of "mobile" and certainly qualifies in my mind for coverage here. Obviously it shares an OS with a phone and even comes in 3G-enabled versions.

But to get all Clinton on the issue, it all depends on what the meaning of "mobile" is. Clearly the tablet is not a phone, both in terms of portability and functionality. Its use cases are not entirely the same. As one panelist last week quipped as he lifted one up, "you don't bring this into a store." Yes, and that removes from the tablet entire categories of shopping and in-store apps and eliminates whole classes of remote and LBS-based functionality. Maybe.  

At the same time, the telling retort to that comment was, "Yes but you have it here on stage." Which is to say that the tablet is not a laptop, either. Arguably it is more mobile than a PC. I have both an iPad and the slightly heavier Mac Air, and productivity remains the deciding factor in whether to pack one or the other when I leave the house. I type on my laptop. I read and watch on my iPad. But as Nielsen analyst Jerry Rocha showed us at the Summit, his research finds that 59% of iPad usage is occurring in the home. Only 19% is "on the go."

 Now, to be clear, the homebound phenomenon actually is common even in other "mobile devices." In fact the iPhone itself is used 47% of the time at home and the iPod Touch 64%. The Kindle, that beach-worthy, pack-it-in-your-purse e-reader, is used at home 71% of the time. So, yes, we can argue that the iPad is distinct from the smartphones insofar as it is primarily a media consumption device. But at the same time we have to recognize that our entire notion of "mobility" suffers from caricature as well. Only 25% of iPhone usage occurs "one the go" according to Nielsen, with another 16% at work or school. I know I probably make more use of my smartphones in the same context as I use the iPad - during the evening, in front of the TV.  

Mobility itself may account for less of the real distinction between the smartphone and tablet formats than the most obvious difference: screen size. When it comes to actual content use, the iPhone and iPad are fairly close in the categories of music, radio and news access. The big gulfs form around lean-back content. While only 13% of iPhone owners read books on their device, 39% of iPad owners do. TV shows (33% iPad, 11% iPhone), Movies (32% iPad, 12% iPhone) and Magazines (25% iPad, 8% iPhone) all benefit from the larger screen substantially. For brands this may mean less of an opportunity for offering utility. I have seen precious few truly compelling branded apps on the iPad. There are catalogs and such from The Gap, and Kraft has its app aimed at cooking with your kids that does leverage the platform. There have been numerous custom iPad magazines from car makers with just a couple of interesting executions. But I haven't seen many brands try to capitalize yet on the main functionality of the iPad, media consumption.

Also, add to the distinctions across devices the personal nature of mobility. The iPad is much more of a shared device than a smartphone is. While 66% of phone users say they are the only one who accesses their smartphone, only 54% of tablet owners say the same, almost identical stats as apply to netbook use.

Of course we are only nine months into the tablet lifecycle. Usage is a moving target. I think almost all of us who bought the devices are a bit astonished at how much we use them, how much they replace a laptop in the home, and how much more pleasurable digital content consumption is on a large touch screen than it is on a desktop or laptop. One content-sharing service published stats the other day showing how tablet owners who saved content on their PC during the day for later viewing much preferred reading the material during the evening on the tablet than on the PC. In fact, tablet owners, knowing that they had a lean-back platform to review content later in the day, made considerably less use of the computer for revisiting that saved content during the day. In other words, the tablet seemed to be a kind of time-shifting DVR for Web content.

Deciding whether a tablet is or isn't a "mobile" device is moot, because the definition of "mobile" is itself being made squishier by multiple device categories and a smartphone that itself is behaving more like a PC. Clearly tablets are defining a separate category that doesn't just overlap two others (PC and phone), but actually exceeds the capabilities of both in media consumption. For the time being, most advertisers experimenting with the platform have been using enhanced versions of print and Web advertising. To be sure, the potential for "engagement" is remarkable on these screens, perhaps higher than we have yet seen on a digital device. But there is also room for content creativity we haven't seen yet.

4 comments about "Not a Phone, Not a PC: Finding the Tablet Niche ".
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  1. D Keble from Keeble Consulting, February 10, 2011 at 4 p.m.

    What interests me most about this home usage pattern us that integrating the tablet into the home computing environment seems to be such a low priority. I think tablets are cool and potentially useful but until one comes along that allows me to use it as a part of my computing ecosystem - accessing and altering files over the network, or perhaps as a graphic input device for PC software - it doesn't seem compelling. And as for becoming locked in to Appleworld, forget it. Are there such devices / apps happening? From my reading, even Outlook integration seems to be a challenge.

  2. Suzy Sandberg from, February 10, 2011 at 4:40 p.m.

    Great article, Steve. I have been one of the ones pushing to declare that the iPad is not a mobile device. My reasons primarily have to do with logistcs of managing paid search campaigns, and the distinction is real there. The iPad renders like a netbook so you don't need to abide by other mobile devices best practices to make sure your ads are "seen" on an iPad like you do on a phone. Also, you don't want to link iPad people to a mobilized website -- Walmart did this during the holiday, and I thought it was a big mistake since on an iPad you want to see content the same way and in the same qty as you do on a PC. Lastly, the behavior of what people are using their iPads for in the way of eCommerce is very different than on their phones. We need to understand this behavior in order to hone strategies but when you mash iPad in with all other mobile devices, it doesn't tell an accurate story. This is my perspective from the eComm front, anyway.

  3. Andrew Koven from Steve Madden, February 10, 2011 at 4:43 p.m.


    Kudos!!! You are totally on point.

    About time someone covered this - I've been asked this question a bunch of times on panels.

    Yes, It really is a MOOT point. A laptop with a wireless card is mobile - let's say it's a tiny laptop :)

    It's a form - function discussion and at the end of the day - it's mobile because it's not connected in the traditional sense - how about we coin a new term:

    Portamobile -


  4. Denner Etherton from CEO, February 14, 2011 at 2:22 a.m.

    This technology is awesome and i like it more than these.thanks for your sharing.

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