For tablets to succeed mainstream: Consumers simply must "get it"

Summary:Tablet makers are racing to get products to market, but they are missing a key point to get consumers to buy them. Consumers simply must "get it" when exposed to a given tablet.

Tablets are everywhere these days, in TV ads, big box retail stores and certainly all over the web. Where they aren't is even more significant: in lots of consumer's hands. Tablet makers are racing to get products to market, but they are missing a key factor to get consumers to buy them. Consumers must look at a given tablet and "get it"; they must be able to see in just a short time how that product will fit in their lives. OEMs are failing at getting that message across, with the exception of Apple with the iPad.

I have been using and testing tablets of all kinds for years, and a big part of that testing is gauging consumer reaction to a given product. The mainstream consumer market is the target for tablets, and understanding how they react to them is vital for determining how well a given device might do in the market.

One of the first things I do with a tablet, whether it is an iPad, Android tablet and currently the BlackBerry PlayBook, is hand it to regular folks with no explanation. The purpose is to see how quickly, and how excitedly, they jump into using the tablet in hand. Their reaction to a product is valuable, because even though hands-on impression is extremely important for this type of product, the marketing that most companies use for such devices is terrible. The first hands-on exposure to a tablet usually is the all-important first impression upon which he/she will base all thoughts about not only this product but often for all other tablets that come along. Watching what they do with the tablet is a good indicator of how consumers will react to it when it comes time to buy or not.

Invariably, the reaction people have to the iPad is very different from that with other tablets. Apple has designed the iPad and its interface to be totally without intimidation. The iPad in use follows through with the marketing message that Apple gives: you just do things with it. No computing metaphors, no talk of all the different email services it can access. You will never hear the word "tablet" in an iPad ad. You just do things with it, and consumers "get it". Every time I've handed an iPad to someone they start touching icons and swiping the screen, and in seconds they are doing things with it, and totally ignoring everything around them.

Doing the same thing with the Motorola XOOM, Android's flagship tablet, couldn't be more different. The person I hand the XOOM to invariably stares at it for a while, trying to figure out how to turn it on. Once its running, I see more staring as they try to figure out not only what to do with it, but also how to do it. Google went with a desktop computer interface for Honeycomb, and that is a huge mistake. Computer desktops intimidate most people and that carries over to the Honeycomb tablet.

Once the individual gets past the visible intimidation to the Android tablet, they usually ask me what they can do with it. They don't get it. They don't visualize all the neat things they can do with this tablet, and that's a big failure. Almost without exception they play with the tablet for a few minutes and hand it back to me. The first impression failed to excite them in any way, and thus failed to make them see what they might do with a tablet of their own. They are not going to buy one.

The marketing of these tablets isn't helping things. Remember the XOOM TV ads that showed the user morphing into a cyborg with the XOOM in hand? What message did that send to the prospective buyer of the XOOM? Not one that made it clear how the XOOM could be of use to the average buyer. In fact it sent an intimidating message to the viewer. Not only did the consumer not get it, the ad maker didn't either.

I see folks have the same reaction to the BlackBerry PlayBook as they do to the Android tablets. They are less intimidated by the hardware, which is a plus for RIM, but they just stare at the screen for a while as they try to determine what to do with the PlayBook. There is no immediate "doing things" as is the common reaction to the iPad. It's not just a lack of apps on the PlayBook either, it's a complete lack of vision that the product invokes in the user. No joy of experimenting with the device, no excitement of discovery of what this new type of gadget can do. Often there is that same question I hear a lot: "what can I do with it?"

Tablet makers must make sure that, like the iPad, their product has a simple hardware design. They must put an interface on it that is totally intuitive and inviting to be touched, and most importantly invites the user to do things. No intimidation is allowed, just the invitation for exploration with the tablet. Make that the focus of all marketing for the tablet. Not whiz-bang features, not sophisticated functionality; get the message out that you can just do things with this tablet. That's all mainstream consumers want to hear.

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Topics: Laptops, Hardware, Mobility, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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