July 6th, 2011
Last week the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study showing the share of adults in the U.S. who owned e-readers had climbed to 12%, while the number of tablet owners was only 8%. Immediately, the debate began as to whether or not the hype around tablets was actually justified or simply another bit of marketing push by Apple. And what were educators thinking, by the way, when it came to advocating the purchase and use of tablets in schools?
This brief brouhaha over e-readers and tablets reminded me of the raves and rants I was hearing back in the fall of 2009. At that time, e-readers were stealing the show. The Kindle was hogging the spotlight but the Nook was to be released for the holidays, and a slew of other devices we in the offing. Everyone was asking if e-readers would be able to push the tipping point for e-books, in e-textbooks. Tablets were barely a gleam in anyone’s eye, and were expected to begin their long-awaited rollout the following summer and fall. And then along came the iPad, announced with amazing fanfare only a few short weeks after CES.
And suddenly, everything changed.
Tablets, specifically the iPad, were heralded as the devices that would usher in a sea change in personal computing. Sales of the iPad took off immediately and the device took over the new market. That lead was solidified a year later with the launch of the iPad 2 and, in spite of the rise and continued promise of Android Honeycomb devices, tablet market in the U.S. remains a single-device play.
Meanwhile, e-readers surprised everyone by refusing to go away. In fact, as the Pew study shows, they have garnered both pocket and mindshare more rapidly than tablets.
But the important question is what all this might mean for Higher Education. What’s the real potential of tablet devices in U.S. colleges and universities?
I’ve been bullish in my predictions of tablet device penetration in Higher Education, and there’s nothing in the Pew report that suggests I should change my position. Here are six reasons I still feel comfortable predicting a market penetration of 20% for incoming freshmen in the fall of 2012.
1. With regards to traditional students in Higher Education, the Pew report shows tablets are more popular than e-readers. In fact, among respondents aged 18-29, 12% said they owned tablet devices while only 10% owned e-readers.
2. The definition between e-readers and tablets is becoming increasingly blurred. This is particularly important in Higher Education where tablets will largely supplement notebook and desktop computers for the next few years. And, with the ability to support Android apps and a robust browser, e-reader hybrids such as Barnes & Noble’s NOOKcolor may be utilized as tablet-like consumption devices by many students. We should also keep in mind that Amazon, long the leader of the e-reader race, is scheduled to bring out its own tablet device this fall.
3. The cloud makes a big difference. A big criticism of tablet devices in education has been the lack of dedicated, high-end productivity software like Microsoft Office. Well, with the release of Microsoft Office 360, it looks like the cloud-based version of the Office will soon be available to tablet users. In addition, Google Apps continues to innovate around tablets. Add this to the more than a hundred thousand apps already available for tablets and the criticism seems to fade rather quickly.
4. The number of tablet products continues to increase which will drive prices down. It’s hard to go more than a few days without seeing an article like this one touting the imminent release of a new tablet device at leading retail stores. This is important for a number of reasons, First, it heralds the overall growth of the market and the continued innovation outside of Apple’s empire. In addition, it sets up intensified competition among the other players, each of which must find a way to differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded market. Obviously, one of the best ways to set yourself apart in such a market is by lowering prices. Such discounts will stimulate additional purchase activity over the coming year.
5. It’s a lifestyle device. Tablets aren’t “required” devices. They are lifestyle devices, discretionary purchases. And, as with other such devices and purchases, the key factors are popularity, trendiness, and fun. Tablets certainly score hight in these areas, especially among the traditional student demographic. Moreover, with coming market saturation and cost differentials being introduced between now and Thanksgiving, I expect tablets to be the preferred lifestyle gift among young adults this year.
6. Tablets work better for textbook publishers. Tablet devices support more robust browsing and online productivity, and also make it easier to access multiple forms of content. As such, they are ideal for publisher initiatives around digital textbooks and learning suites. Unlike e-readers, which are necessarily tied to book e-retailers and potential competitors) such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, tablet devices are more neutral for textbook publishers.
As I’ve said all along, 2012 is the big measuring point for tablet adoptions in Higher Education. And, with a likely market penetration of 20% for incoming freshmen, we should also look to them as pivotal when it comes to ushering the industry past the tipping point in digital textbooks.
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