High prices threaten to kill tablet adoption

This sounds like a grouchy (and obvious) question, but are tablet computers too expensive? Are high prices going to push the nascent tablet computing platform into a nose dive it can’t recover from?

For a brief few hours over the weekend, rumors flew that the Motorola Xoom tablet would be priced at $1199, at least at BestBuy. However, the pre-order page in question soon disappeared and experts went back to suggesting the Xoom will “only” cost $800 (although we still have no official confirmation).

The cheapest iPad rolls in at $499, and goes up to $829 if you want top of the range. To avoid two-year contracts, the Galaxy Tab will set you back around $600. There are rumours the Research In Motion (RIM) PlayBook might be priced around $500, which would position it against the cheapest iPad. That’s a step in the right direction but still far from being a guilt-free purchase for anybody other than Arab sheikhs.

The Galaxy Tab weighs 368 grams. If you decided to invest in the equivalent weight of pure silver, it’d cost half the price of a Tab ($356 for 368 grams of silver vs. $600 for the Tab at $0.97 per gram of silver).

The top-range, Wi-Fi-only iPad is also more expensive as its own weight in silver: $659.60 for 680 grams of silver vs. $699 for a 64GB Wi-Fi iPad.

Comparisons to precious metals are apt. I’ve yet to invest in a tablet and there’s a reason: I’m seriously concerned about theft.

Like jewelry, tablet computers are highly portable by design. A computer journalist friend of mine wanted to write about the practicality of tablets so he used one on subway trains, and in the park, and on buses. It was going very well until one particular bus came to a stop, and somebody snatched the tablet out of his hands before sprinting away.

My friend was peeved but should count his blessings. At least he wasn’t pinned against a wall and the device extracted with the aid of a weapon.

People quote insurance as some kind of defence against theft but, while it might replace what’s lost (provided the insurers don’t wriggle out of paying up), it doesn’t do anything to remove the nasty memory of being mugged–something I’d argue is likely if you flash $800 of highly portable and desirable computer hardware at every coffee shop and bus stop.

Then there’s the fact that high prices effectively rule-out tablets from the world of business, especially in the gloomy economic climate. Employers are even adopting schemes where workers can bring in their own tech for work use. Ultimately, however, the biggest issue with high pricing is that it creates a high-end niche for tablets. It’s as if manufacturers have decided the best way forward is exclusivity: Sell fewer tablets yet make higher profits on each one sold. Taking an overview, this does the tablet computing platform no good at all.

There are inexpensive tablets, of course. But it’s a marketplace full of devices terrible to use due to poor hardware and software choices. They fail to show why tablet computing is so compelling. Manufacturers can justify why tablets are so expensive. Large capacitive-sensor touchscreens are not cheap. Nor at the (relatively) high-powered processors tablet computers demand, or high quantities of computing-grade flash storage.

However, it feels as if manufacturers are not only using the Apple (Nasdaq: aapl) iPad as a model for form factor and design, but also as a price guide. If Apple can do it, they seem to think, then so can we.

They clearly choose to ignore that overpriced electronics are Apple’s raison d’être. Apple gets away with it, but that’s taken 30 years of training customers to appreciate its brand. Companies better known for manufacturing cell phones or televisions are never going to muster this kind of head-turning power.

Sadly, of course, their CEOs are often blind to this. It’s a CEO’s job to be the biggest fan of his or her own brand. They believe they can get away with it.

If you lay down almost $1000 on an Apple tablet, at least you get to look smug. Some people will think you’re an idiot, of course, but many more will nod sagely and secretly understand your insanity.

But laying down almost $1000 on a piece of Motorola hardware–from the same company that makes the cheap phone your mom uses because she doesn’t know about technology? I’d argue that nearly everybody would think you’re an idiot, no matter how hard you argue that the tech specs are superb.

You might disagree with my assessment, of course.

These are early days for the tablet computing field and what’s on offer at the moment really does push the boundaries of current technology, so I can forgive high prices to a limit.

That same technology will drop in price as time goes on, so perhaps the argument is less about whether tablet computers are too expensive right now. The question is whether the hype can stick around for long enough for tablets still to be appealing when usable devices do eventually drop in price. That could take years, however.

The biggest risk is that the tablet computing niche being created right now could make people write off the entire nascent hardware platform as little more than a triviality for those with more money than sense.

Keir Thomas has been making known his opinion about computing matters since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com. His Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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