Tablets and the fine art of vapor marketing

moses-jobs-ipadVapor marketing, the ability to sell even an educated public a product that doesn’t exist or isn’t what it was promised to be, has been defining our lists of hot products for a while now. Not only does vapor marketing sell us products, it actually plays a vital role in changing the way technology affects our lives…but is technology changing to suit our needs or are our needs changing to suit the vapor marketing?

Think back if you will to those wild, heady days when netbooks first appeared. The PDA was dead and gone, the age of smartphones was just picking up speed, and a company little known in the West called Asus released what was initially mocked as a toy laptop, similar to some of the stranger designs that came from Sony and Sharp in the last days of PDAs. Seven-inch screens, almost useless keyboards, trackpads the size of first class postage stamps, miniscule 4G solid state drives…most tech writers dismissed them out of hand as "My First Laptop." Even the name looked like a typo with delusions of grandeur…the Eee.

However, they soon stopped laughing.

When netbooks started to sell like nobody's business in a down economy and a stagnate tech market, we all saw that something new was happening. The netbook was redefining the way we viewed portable computers, pulling the notebook closer to the smartphone. As Asus raked in the cash (and released a dizzying number of different Asus Eee models), every tech vendor with some factory space and a product design team made netbooks, often not even announcing them before starting to ship them. Of course all the main vendors started making netbooks, even ones like Sony that refused to accept the name if not the product form, and then all sorts of unlikely companies started making them too: Coby, Bang & Olufsen, Archos, endless Chinese start ups who all had at least one netbook shipping. I was waiting to see who else would make one. Black and Decker perhaps? K-Tel? Chevrolet?

Of course most people failed to realize that netbooks were useless for many traditional computing tasks before the Visa charges had cleared. Marketers had convinced them that they were just cheaper, smaller notebook computers and could do all that notebooks did, just…well…smaller and cheaper. The people who were selling netbooks to the mainstream never actually made clear, perhaps even they didn't understand, that they were not selling a tool to do the same old thing, but a reworking of an old tool to do something new, to take the next step into mobile technology. Ubiquitous computing. Always handy, always charged, always on, always connected.

The same thing is happening all over again with tablets. The category is being driven by marketing first and foremost. After all, it would seem to be a logical outgrowth of netbooks. What was the major problem with netbooks? The tiny keyboard making it hard to be productive…therefore, lose the keyboard!

Why do we know that we all need tablets? How do we know they will be the next great stage in computing technology? Well, because the marketers and the tech reporters have told us so. Constantly. Ad infinitum. However, a recent study by NPD of iPad buyers has found that while those who bought Apple’s "magical" tablet after the early adopters are happy with their purchase, they still are not entirely sure what to do with it. This is seeming to lend credence to one of the early critiques of the device, and of all tablets in general, which stated that it was an answer without a question, a solution without a problem that demanded it.

It seems this lingering feeling amongst vendors that eventually the public will realize that the tablet has no clothes, as well as the fact that trying to shoulder your way into a market that is dominated by Apple is a far different proposition than doing the same to an Asus-controlled market, is causing a strange situation. I call it vapor marketing. Every company under the sun has announced tablets…most of them did so more than six months ago. Where are they? We have seen the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which seems to be forever just around the corner from wide distribution at a ridiculous price, a whole bunch of Archos Android tablets that are mainly being ignored by the mainstream, and a vast array of Chinese knockoffs that may or may not be for sale in Asia; it is always tough to tell.

Beyond that some bloggers have reached the point that when a product like RIMs PlayBook is announced, the fact that a working demo wasn’t displayed leads to cries of vaporware, or worse, outright fraud….perhaps it only exists in a marketers road map.

I have news for you all: working prototypes or not almost all the tablets that have been rumored and even formally announced are chimera that live only in dealer presentation. Vapor marketing.

Already the excuses are being made. Companies are delaying/redesigning/canceling their tablet projects after crowing about them just a quarter ago. The newest to drop was the tablet from LG, and they are claiming it is because Android 2.2 is unstable. Personally I believe that Google recently announced that they felt Froyo was unsuitable for tablets to try and accelerate development of Android 3.0 and 3.5 as well as to give the vendors they depend on, such as LG, a way to climb down.

With netbooks, vendors went ahead and shipped devices they knew were not what the mainstream thought they were due to vapor marketing. However, the cost both in terms of remaindered stock and public discontent has been steep. Now that tablets have taken center stage, it appears that vendors may not even bother to release them; however, they are sure announcing them, firing up the analysts, getting a few more inches in the tech press…then quietly canning the projects before they have to produce anything.

LG will not be the last canceled tablet that we see. It is a long way until Q1 2011. Plenty of time for vapor marketing to do its work, then melt away.

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Zealot Benmergui

Zealot is a former contributing editor at Pocketables.

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