Tablet makers are on a collision course, competing to see whose prices will go the lowest and we all want to know: Who will take the plunge, how badly will they skin their knees, and what are the tech specs of the models that survive the crash?
According to DigiTimes, Google is taking a new tablet all the way down to $99. Granted, DigiTimes is a notoriously unreliable Taiwanese publication responsible for such fantastic rumors such as a $799 MacBook Air, and another one claiming that Apple's machines would include AMD chips. According to The Verge, DigiTimes is wrong as often as it's right.
Even more reputable sources like CNET picked up the DigiTimes rumor and spilled ink on the topic. "I'm highly skeptical that this rumor will come true, at least in the time frame that DigiTimes seems to think it will," CNET opined in September, "But if it did it would break the tablet market wide open."
The Google rumor is fairly specific, even if it hasn't proven to be true – DigiTimes claimed the new device would launch in late 2012. The search giant supposedly joined forces with Asian manufacturers WonderMedia, HannStar and Quanta, DigiTime said, to bring the tablet to market. The story also included specific hardware that doesn't sound too impressive – after all, what can for $99?
CNET may be right, at least about disrupting the tablet market, especially if the hardware is decent, and given what's available at the $99 price point that's a big if. Take, for example, the recent ASUS offering, the Memo Pad 7 priced at $149; $50 more than Google's rumored price target. On paper, the memo sports a single core chip, a slower GPU than the Nexus 7, plus a display that can't show HD video – even 720p.
I haven't had a hands-on opportunity to compare a Nexus 7 and Memo but what I suspect is that the Memo performs reasonably well for productivity-type use, but falters when apps like games use 3D. The same goes for video. On a 7- to 10-inch screen I can't discern much difference with casual use between 720p and 1080p, but I notice 480p (SD) versus 720p on my iPad mini, and definitely on the larger Nexus 10 screen. The memo is just one example. There are many more examples of $100 tablets carrying similar or worse hardware.
All of this makes me think that maybe a $99 tablet that offers decent Web browsing, email, social media – in short, office functions including VOIP – may be profitable for manufacturers and useful for business. But with technology as it is, complex 3D games and HD entertainment are not on the menu.
It's possible ASUS has already cracked the nut with its $149 tablet. But if Google can do it for $50 less and provide a comparable business-use experience, that would truly be game changing, especially in a BYOD enterprise scenario. At $99 a pop, and possible volume discounts that's a lot of cheap tablets. I suspect enterprises would jump at the chance. Moreover, in developing countries $99 starts to look affordable and that extra $50 for a Memo or $100 for a Nexus 7 likely puts those out of reach for many consumers.
Amongst the tablet kingpins I believe Apple is the least likely candidate to enter this low-range market. Sure, there are some rumors about a cheap iPhone, which continue to be unproven. I doubt the budget iPhone stories are entirely true, though, because, as we all know Apple prices itself above its competition, even if the hardware isn't always competitive.
The Mac Pro is probably the best example. Sure it got an update this year, but it wasn't much of one, and the prior update was in 2010. So there's a three-year-old desktop model with a baseline price of $2,499 which, if fully decked out, can run well over $10,000. And in terms of tablets the iPad mini's chief competitor, the Nexus 7 is $139 cheaper and arguably has much better hardware. The same is true for larger iPads.
Amazon's got some skin in the game already with its e-readers but aren't really comparable with tablets because of their limited functionality. The Kindle Fire and Fire HD are really Nexus 7 competitors and, I believe, priced outside of the low-end market. Although the Fire has a dual core chip, it too lacks an HD screen, and is priced considerably higher than the $99 price point. I don't think that Amazon's going to try for a $100 tablet considering it already offers consumers a cheap way to consume its content via the e-readers.
It's possible a company like Samsung would see value in the lower-end of the market but it has seen its strongest results with high-end devices like the Nexus 10 (although that's Google branding) and the Galaxy S3. At this point, the lower end of the market doesn't seem as interesting to them.
Aside from the ones I've already mentioned, the only other company, I see in the picture at this point is Mozilla. Now before you laugh, it's at least possible there's a Firefox OS based tablet in the future. I couldn't tell you when or even if the company would be interested in the $99 price point, but it certainly would align with their mission statement: "to promote openness, innovation, and opportunity on the Web." It's a bit far fetched, but it's certainly within the realm of possibility.
That's how I feel about the $99 Google tablet. Given that the apparent release date has come and gone, and there hasn't been a peep about it from Google, I'm wondering if the rumored tablet will ever debut. But I never say never.