Maybe Thorsten Heins isn't crazy: Tablets as an interim step

Credit: Simon Bisson, CITEworld

Yesterday in Los Angeles, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins threw cold water on the tablet market: "In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore," he said, according to Bloomberg.

Is he nuts? Hasn't he seen the explosive growth of the iPad? Just last quarter Apple sold more than 19 million iPads -- up more than 60% from the previous year -- and every analyst in the world is predicting more growth. This seems like sour grapes from a company that couldn't make a go in the tablet market a couple years ago.

But in another interview with Bloomberg TV, Heins explained his company's tablet strategy in a little more detail, and I don't think he's crazy at all. Here's the quote:

The tablet market is very challenging from a pure hardware perspective, there's very few companies that can make money on the hardware. So if we want to do that, we need a service value proposition on top of that. Some of that will be shown at BlackBerry Live, but we are running with a different concept that makes this [holds up a BlackBerry phone] your personal mobile computing power. Only this is your personal mobile computing power. So it's a slightly different approach to the market. 

Leave aside the first part of the quote -- BlackBerry doesn't have the supply chain and massive scale of Apple, so it would have a very hard time making a profit on hardware while keeping prices competitive.

The more interesting part is the company's vision of the future. Heins is saying that the BlackBerry phone will be your one and only device -- it will contain your method of authentication, your apps, and your data (or links to your data in the cloud).

So imagine this: In the morning you arrive at work. Your phone wirelessly connects to a monitor on your desk, and all your apps and data appear as if by magic. You work at that desk with a keyboard and mouse, occasionally touching the screen to open apps or zoom into data. When you need to go to a meeting, you transfer the display to a portable flat panel with minimal local storage -- a "dumb" tablet if you will -- and the same experience, with the same data, is downscaled for the small screen. Your work is not interrupted simply because you have to switch devices.

At the end of the day, you disconnect and walk to your car. Your phone wirelessly connects to your car's informatics system, offering GPS-based directions, voice dictation, and music. When you get home, the phone wirelessly connects to your TV in the living room, your computer in the office, or another portable flat panel that you can carry with you, and you continue reading, watching video, or whatever else.

You never have to log in. You never have to sync data between devices. All your stuff is where you want it, on whatever display you want it on. Your phone is both a smartphone and the personal authentication device that ties everything together.

There are quite a few companies starting to toy with this vision of a single device connecting to a wide variety of displays -- Microsoft's Windows To Go and Dell's Ophelia are similar in concept, only using a USB stick instead of a phone.

Or think about how Apple could realize this vision. I don't claim any special inside knowledge of Apple's product plans, but when I hear rumors about a watch and a TV, I imagine a single personal device (a phone, iPod Touch, or maybe even the watch) that automatically connects to all sorts of display types (including a TV). Yes, this might cannibalize the iPad, but no company has been more willing to cannibalize itself to create great new experiences.

BlackBerry may not be the company to realize this vision successfully. But it's not a crazy vision.

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