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Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN ) incomplete press release yesterday -- proclaiming that it sold four times as many Kindles on Black Friday than it did a year ago -- should be enough to get Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) attention. The Kindle Fire has been Amazon's best-seller since it was introduced eight weeks ago, so clearly the $199 price point is a hit with consumers looking for a cheap entry-level tablet.
However, the market may be heating up on the higher end of the tablet space too.
We're starting to see retailers promising release dates of late next week for Transformer Prime. No, this isn't a new Shia LaBeouf movie. (Thank goodness!) Transformer Prime is ASUS' well-hyped device, and the spec sheet is impressive. We're talking about an NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA ) Tegra 3 mobile chip processor for killer graphics and speed. Transformer Prime's slick guts are apparently enough to have GameStop (NYSE: GME ) bundling it with a Bluetooth console-like controller and several digital games as a tablet that diehard gamers can finally sink their teeth into.
Unfortunately, ASUS is pricing this at $499. No one will argue that it's not worth at least that much. It matches the iPad 2 on price, but more features and a slightly larger display are compelling differences. Side by side, Transformer Prime will give tablet buyers more bang for their buck. If buyers are in the market for a rich Android-flavored tablet, this may be the one worth getting.
You're not going to get a Transformer Prime next week, are you?
The uncomfortable truth
Tablet manufacturers don't know what you -- in the back of your mind -- already know. No one needs a tablet.
Millions of people already own tablets in this country. Millions if not tens of millions more want one, and may very well get one this holiday season. However, the gadgetry world's best kept secret is that nobody really requires a tablet.
A desktop or laptop is a necessity for getting work and homework done these days. A mobile phone, ideally a smartphone with "good enough" computing capability, is the way folks communicate with one another these days. Where's the killer application that makes a tablet indispensible? Solo streaming is certainly convenient on a tablet, but nearly any Web-tethered device can scratch that itch. Rudimentary Internet surfing and gaming apps are entertaining. Dedicated e-readers are cheaper for consuming digital books, newspapers, and magazines.
As long as tablets are primarily leisure appliances and the economy isn't amenable to grown-up toys with three-figure price tags, we're not going to get anywhere here beyond the novelty.
A tale of two tablets
Folks snapped up iPads last year because Steve Jobs said they were magical. Folks are snapping up the Kindle Fire -- apparently in the millions -- because Amazon is willing to take an initial loss on the gadgets given its rich ecosystem. It's also been promoting the Kindle Fire on its well-trafficked homepage for two months.
It gets bleak after that. Outside of the iPad 2 and Kindle Fire, there were roughly as many people attending an NFL game in person over this holiday weekend as there are tablet buyers this year through the end of October.
Market tracker NPD Group shocked the public when its channel checks showed that there were just 1.2 million non-iPad tablets sold in this country through the first 10 months of the year. It would have been substantially less if Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) hadn't marked down its webOS TouchPad tablet to as little as $99 in a seemingly going-out-of-business clearance sale.
In short, despite all of its success as a mobile operating system for smartphones, Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android has been a dud for any manufacturer actually trying to sell gadgetry at a profit.
Give it time
Nobody needs a tablet now, but that doesn't mean that they won't need one in the future.
There are already several schools around the country making the dramatic leap from textbooks to digital books on iPads. The movement is largely iOS-driven. There aren't too many schools, if any, going the cheaper Android route. The Kindle Fire's success may change that, but at least we're getting to the point where the country's youth is trading heavy backpacks of books for a lightweight iPad.
This is how it starts. Kids armed with tablets for school will eventually find that they're spending more time on tablets than they are on their parents' computers. Tablets may become the next generation's computer.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Bluetooth keyboard accessories are turning tablets into simple touchpad laptops. Once Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) throws a little more weight behind Windows-propelled tablets we may get to more traditional functionality, but who are we to assume that the next generation won't simply choose cheaper app- and cloud-based alternatives to Microsoft's Office suite of programs? The kids will figure this out on their own, and they're the ones that will make tablets technological necessities.
It will happen, but every manufacturer rushing to get their tablet on the market in time for this holiday season is missing the point. If they think they'll be purveyors of stocking stuffers, they're at least a year or two too early, even during a time of year that has historically valued wants over needs.
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