When to expect tested, reasonably priced tablets

Call it a technological iteration of Schadenfreude. The dipping tablet sales manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung have experienced of late might actually point to an opportunity for physicians and medical groups to adopt seasoned and vetted products at soon-to-be reasonable pricing. 

Apple late last month reported its second quarter of slowing iPad sales. Samsung, the market’s second place racer, grew sales ever so slightly, while Lenovo and Asus continue jockeying for more customers.

IDC research director for tablets Jean Philippe Bouchard said that customers are still opting for large-screen smartphones and holding onto those longer than previously expected. The same can be said for PCs.

Will tablets catch on among medical practices and, if so, what will it take?

Great promise
They’re sexy. Tablet computers are slim, too, and several are undeniably cool. What’s more, many smartphone-toting doctors and practice managers use them personally, and the intrepid even put them to work in their practice.

Some industry watchers are starting to ask questions, however, about where hardware and software makers are on the arc of innovation, as well as how long tablet sales can persist.

At April’s end, esteemed PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak cautioned that The Tablet Dead End is Dead Ahead.

“Once the market saturates, the replacement cycle is long and slow,” Dvorak wrote. “Unlike on PCs, there are no tablet apps that are so powerful they need more horsepower.”

Today’s tablets, in fact, pack plenty of processing power and memory. Consider the latest big splash: Samsung’s new high-end 10.5-incher, the Galaxy Tab S, for instance, boasts a processor blazing at 1.9 GHz — markedly faster, I’d imagine, than many of those desktops lingering around medical practices’ offices. 

PC past as prologue
Peter Bright likens the current slowdown in tablet sales and innovation to personal computers before them.

“Once upon a time, PCs were replaced fairly frequently, perhaps every three years, because new ones were so substantially better thanks to Moore's Law and the rapid progress in single-threaded processor design. But for many use cases, that progress more or less stopped in the mid-2000s,” Bright explained in Ars Technica. “So people stopped buying PCs. They didn't stop using them — all those good enough Windows XP machines that are still out there are still serving some kind of a purpose — but replacements were driven by necessity rather than any sense that the new machines would be better than the old ones.” 

In other words: PCs reached the evolutionary point where, after years of frustrating crashes and Blue Screens of Death, the hardware and software actually worked well enough that enterprise and home customers no longer needed to upgrade. So PC vendors did the only thing they could do, and that was cut prices. And, yes, the same situation played out with laptop computers a few years later.

Lower prices on the horizon
So here we are with tablets. Prices have been coming down very slowly as more vendors enter the fray but not yet enough to really be advantageous to medical groups looking for affordable workman-like machines.

"Until recently, Apple, and to a lesser extent Samsung, have been sitting at the top of the market, minimally impacted by the progress from competitors," said Jitesh Ubrani, research analyst for IDC’s worldwide quarterly tablet tracker. "Now we are seeing growth among the smaller vendors and a leveling of shares across more vendors as the market enters a new phase."

Indeed, a wide range of price points exist from the likes of Acer, Apple, Asus, Dell, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, LG Electronics, Microsoft and Samsung, among others. Depending on configuration, tablets are available for less than $100, or customers can plunk down more than $1,000.

Know that those pricey slates and even so-called convertibles (a tablet with a laptop keyboard) typically run a more robust Windows operating system but you’ll likely be paying for way more computing power than a clinician needs at the point of care. And don’t expect much in the way of features and functions at the low-end of the price spectrum.

Look for all that to change in the next year or two, although it’s tricky to predict an exact timeframe. What with market leaders reporting drops in sales, once the tablet market is considered saturated enough, they’ll have little choice but to start slashing prices, too.

That will create a golden opportunity to purchase new robust and proven tablets at more affordable prices — and to anticipate those products actually lasting long enough that you can expect a return on investing in them.