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Toshiba takes the tablets

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:41 UK time, Monday, 21 June 2010

Toshiba wants to be loved. It's a company which invented the laptop 25 years ago. It is at the forefront of innovation in mobile computing now and it is the third biggest player in the market behind HP and Acer. But the Japanese firm thinks it is not getting the credit for its achievements, and it is frustrated that a rival which it believes is no further forward in the technology race is stealing its thunder.

Toshiba Libretto W100At least that was the message that I took from a meeting with Alan Thompson, Toshiba's European boss. He was passionate about his company's products and brought with him three new devices which he believes show it at its best. There was the Portege R700 - the latest laptop to claim the crown of thinnest and lightest. There was the AC100, a mobile internet device running on Google's Android operating system. And most interesting of all, the Libretto W100, a Windows 7 multi-touch laptop with a virtual keyboard, which appears to be an attempt to win leadership in the fast-growing tablet category.

And swiftly the talk turned to tablets and the device which has grabbed the limelight - Apple's iPad. "Apple think they've invented the category of the tablet," said Mr Thompson dismissively, "but our first slate-based tablet was launched in 1993." I asked, with a degree of irony, how that was all going, and he was good enough to laugh and admit that the fact that I hadn't heard of any such device indicated that it had not gone all that well so far.

Perhaps the Libretto will prove a breakthrough, though the one I saw was not yet ready to be put through its paces. But Mr Thompson described a touchscreen tablet that Toshiba launched last year, which was selling reasonably well. "It has most of the functions of the iPad," he said,"it's just that we don't have the millions of dollars of marketing spend that other companies have."

He promised to send me one to try out, and a few days later the Journ.e Touch home multimedia tablet turned up. Obviously the first thing Toshiba needs to sort out is the name - how about iTosh? Once I'd got past that hurdle I found that Toshiba's tablet did indeed have many of the functions of the iPad, packed into a smaller device with a seven-inch screen. It uses the Opera browser for the web, it allows you to store and play videos, music and photos, and unlike Apple's tablet it has removable storage options, with ports for USB devices and SD cards. There are even apps that can be installed from a Toshiba virtual store, all of them apparently free.

What's more the Journ.e Touch retails at less than half the price of the cheapest iPad, so in theory it should be a huge hit, generating very significant revenues for Toshiba. So why isn't it? Mr Thompson believes that a combination of Steve Jobs' charisma, the marketing muscle of Apple, and the tens of thousands of apps now available for its devices are to blame.

But I think that's only part of the story. The truth is that the device, like so many tablets that came along before Apple transformed the market, just isn't good enough. It's hard to use - I found myself jabbing at the screen with increasing frustration - harder to navigate, and its design already looks a little dated. But even if it isn't beautiful perhaps it is more functional than Apple's shiny plaything?

Toshiba Journ.e TouchI tried a simple test, updating my Facebook status with each machine. It took me five minutes on the Toshiba - and my status update was so full of typos as to be virtually unreadable. The same task carried out on an iPad took half as long, despite having to reset my wireless connection halfway through, and produced a readable result.

So is the iPad a lot more expensive to make than the Journ.e Touch? Alan Thompson reckons the two firms use very similar components and manufacturing processes, so the underlying cost of the £199 product is little different from that of something which retails at between £400 and £700. In other words, Apple must be enjoying quite extraordinary profit margins on the iPad so no wonder that other firms are rushing to enter this market.

Now it looks as though Toshiba will be adopting a different strategy with the new Libretto dual-screen device - I've seen reports that it will retail at over $1,000, or around £700. But however it prices its products, the Japanese company needs to learn one simple lesson from Apple. Elegant design and above all a great user experience matter as much or more than a history of innovation.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    It's a fair point. Apple have excellent marketing and whilst some of it is paid for some of it is rather too freely given by certain publications.

    That said, Apple do make some excellent products whcih makes it easier for their marketing team to promote their goods. However, they make some absolute howlers too which seem to be curiously overlooked amongst all the gushing praise.

    Toshiba should learn from this rather than complaining.

  • Comment number 2.

    I got the chance to use the iPad last week and I have to say it was a nice experience. I am an iPhone owner but could not be considered an Apple fan in any shape or form. Although it was a fun experience I couldn't imagine doing anything with it in the long term. I use my iPhone as an MP3 player and Sat Nav as well as the standard smart phone features. The iPad seems way too cumbersome to do any of that in a convenient way. With that in mind the product seems like a bit of a waste of money for me as it doesn't fit my lifestyle. I can imagine it being a great replacement for non-tech web users who need to "click and go" but for me it's just not enough.

    And this brings me nicely to my point. A tablet that supports Windows 7 and it's extensive library of software would be of use to me. Something more portable than my powerful laptop but harnessing the same type of processing power would be great and this is where companies like Toshiba can make their mark. I want a tablet I can take with me and run Photoshop, Media Centre and Visual Studio 2010 on the move. Something that supports a stylus as well as a touchscreen and the option of a USB keyboard.

    I want more flexibility and more options and believe I am not alone in this desire. A tablet for professionals who need to do more than consume is the future in my opinion and someone needs to tap into this market.

  • Comment number 3.

    The problem with the tablet market has always been that no one really knows what to do with them. Apple's coup was their ability to help people see the potential of the device (much like they did with mobile internet and touch screens with the original iPhone). I don't think even Apple have got it right with the iPad but after the iPhone people have an inkling of what can be done.

    Three things are becoming important to me:
    1. The device must be easy to use. Apple wins hands down here.

    2. It must be reasonably priced. Apple's pricing is becoming more and more divorced with reality. The pricing for the iPad, iPhone 4 and new mac mini is ridiculous. Add mobile phone tariffs and data bundles and people are getting fleeced, no 2 ways about it. If someone can come up with a sensible pricing model for this I think Apple would have a problem.

    3. I'm getting more and more nervous about cross platform functionality. So far we have Symbian, Apples iOS, Andriod and a few others. HP are about to push PlamOS, WinMob 7 is on it's way and you have to think about this now because Apps/books/music/videos are tied to these operating systems. The next 'killer app' I think will be the company that builds a OS that doesn’t tie you in and can talk to other platforms so I don't have to worry about where I bought my e-book / movie etc from. Cloud services will go a long way towards helping this but more needs to be done, particularly since we not have limited data tariffs so I can’t stream my music / video from the cloud anymore.

  • Comment number 4.

    @ SuperG wrote: A tablet that supports Windows 7 and it's extensive library of software would be of use to me.

    -----------------------------------------------

    I agree, and the stylus idea is great too, I want to be able to hand write notes in meetings and have the tablet recognise the handwriting and convert to a Word doc/email.

  • Comment number 5.

    I agree with the above people. I have had an Iphone for nearly 18 months, and now do not even look at the competition really now. The functionality of the phone is a dream, and has pushed me to even buy a mac in the future, instead of another "boring" laptop, with the usual improvements!
    By no means, I wasn't an Apple fan, but the design, use customer care, it brings, has converted me. You may pay a bit more but its worth it....

  • Comment number 6.

    @Del

    Sorry but I don't agree and I think you missed my point. I would totally consider an alternative to the iPhone as I still think the need for iTunes and the fact I cannot change my music on the fly is a real pain. The only thing I would say is that the iPhone has influenced what I expect from my mobile handset and what I would be prepared to pay for a handset. That's something Apple has done well.

    My point was that I need more from my tech as the Apple model doesn't fit my lifestyle. If it fits yours then thats great. This article is about Toshiba and their tablets though and this is the market I think Toshiba should be aiming for.

  • Comment number 7.

    @SuperG

    Thanks for your comments. I think in the end what is important is the free market and that if you have a great idea, it can go far! Apple have a way of harnessing this and bringing it to the masses.
    They revolutionised the way we looked at portable media, with the Ipod. Then came the IPhone, and now the Ipad... See a pattern?
    Simple to use technology works, and even though the purpose of the Ipad is not really took off yet, it will. I can remember people saying the same about Ipods and Iphones....


  • Comment number 8.

    "Apple have excellent marketing and whilst some of it is paid for some of it is rather too freely given by certain publications"... I can't imagine who you're referring to ;o)

    Apple products expensive? I look at it this way... I have a supposedly top-of-the-range laptop running Windows provided by my employer, and also a 15 inch MacBook Pro. Although the price of the two is fairly similar, the quality difference is enormous. Apple's products feel robust and polished, and generally well-manufactured. The laptop, I worry about panels falling off it if I hold it the wrong way. And that's before we've discussed the quality of the displays and the operating systems.

    So even though I'm unimpressed and unexcited by the iPad on the whole, I can say that the quality and usability is very good.

  • Comment number 9.

    I sympathise with Toshiba's sentiments that their equally capable, if not better, products have their limelight stolen from them by rival products, which is mainly a result of crowd-following by some in the mainstream media. Some bloggers and reports in the MSM no longer give serious tech reviews and comparisons; it's all about Apple and Google these days. I suppose if you want fairly good reviews (as opposed to forced reviews), you really have to go to serious tech websites, which also have their own bias sometimes, especially with regard to the Microsoft/Open Source war, but are largely better in content.

    Toshiba have the TG01 Windows Mobile phone which was amongst the first few, if not THE first, with a 4.2in touch screen, and 1Ghz processor, and a free upgrade to Windows Mobile 6.5, not to mention free Office 2010; hardly a mention in the MSM, who are obsessed with the iPhone and its derivatives. HTC released a 4G WiMAX handset early this month in the US ahead of the iPhone 4, again you have to bypass the MSM for comment on that.

    The result of all this is that people who dare not go near hardcore tech websites may be missing out on good information on what (other) products are out there.

  • Comment number 10.

    @Del
    "I think in the end what is important is the free market and that if you have a great idea, it can go far! " - "They revolutionised the way we looked at portable media, with the Ipod." Totally agree. Competition is always good and Apple really have given the tech industry the shot in the arm it needed over the last 10 years.

    "Then came the IPhone, and now the Ipad... See a pattern?" - No not really. As an iPhone user I am happy to an extent but I would not buy another one because I think the price is too high and it's not that great. iTunes is awful in my opinion and it's so bad it takes the shine of an otherwise decent product. The iPad is pretty useless for my lifestyle. I'm a Web Developer and the iPad just does not have the capacity in hardware or software to do the things I need. I don't need an expensive portable browser.

    Toshiba should not be competing with Apple in regards to the tablet (in my opinion) as Apple are going for a very specific kind of user and not tapping into the full potential of a tablet based device. I know some will say "wait till version 2" but look at the iPhone. Version 4 is only now getting a camera Flash. Drip feeding functionality doesn't suit my needs.

    Your lifestyle fits the Apple model so for you its innovation and a revolution. Honestly that is ace and I salute Apple for doing this. For me though (and others like me) its doing nothing new. I would love to see a tablet where you can use Photoshop or Illustrator with a stylus, then switch to a program like Visual Studio 2010 to do some programming work on your website (using a USB keyboard) then finally view your website online with the touch screen.

    We are two different types of web user and Apple are catering for you really well. Thats fantastic. I think people like Toshiba however should be catering for technical professionals like me.

  • Comment number 11.

    I agree, it's about usability. I have a Toshiba 19LCD TV. It's rubbish. Why? Poor usability. In comparison to a Sony or Panasonic the menu system is terrible, the remote is unresponsive. A waste of 200 pounds.

  • Comment number 12.

    So Toshiba think the Journ.e Touch launched last year was a failure because of lack of marketing?

    What twaddle!

    It failed because it wasn't very good as Rory noted - it is NOT about functionality it is about usability!

    Some people obsess over what functionality the iPad is missing (USB, camera, etc.) but miss the point completely - it is the ease of use, elegance, and for want of a better phrase, a great user experience that really matter.

    Unless and until Apple's rivals get it, they will fail to dent sales of the iPad.

  • Comment number 13.

    I have not heard much from even the dedicated iFanBoys as to why you would bother with this thing rather than a lightweight laptop....and these people would buy iToiletRoll.

  • Comment number 14.

  • Comment number 15.

    "Alan Thompson reckons the two firms use very similar components and manufacturing processes, so the underlying cost of the £199 product is little different"

    I think somebody is a bit delusional!
    7inch vs 10inch iPad screen,
    2hours video playback vs 10hours on iPad,
    2gb built in memory vs 16gb in iPad,
    533Mhz processor vs 1Ghz in iPad
    Cheap & crappy Windows CE vs. Polished and powerful iOS

    There's a massive gulf in cost price associated with these 2 products! The Journ.E is cheap because it's components are cheap!

  • Comment number 16.

    "it's just that we don't have the millions of dollars of marketing spend that other companies have."

    Since when did Toshiba achieve this underdog status?

    As the fifth largest computer manufacturer on the planet, with a finger in just about every other electronic pie going, I'd say that their failure to sell a product was down to their either, having a rubbish product, not trying hard enough, or both.

    Throughout the 1990s, Apple produced a string of 'innovative' products that didn't sell. It wasn't that they didn't sell because they were poorly marketed, or because there was some vast, faceless conspiracy of consumers, Hell-bent on buying anything other than Apple products, it was because the products themselves were pointless and second rate.

    If you make pointless second rate stuff, people won't buy it. Apple, of all companies, have learned that lesson.

  • Comment number 17.

    Toshiba make good laptops. However, they are expensive and losing out ot the march of companies providing more customer focussed less expensive products.

    The truth is Toshoba was great and had some premium, now they are just another "me too" laptop brand that is not quite as good or as cheap as ACER.

    Time to leave the market to the big boys or join forces as they have just done in Japan on mobile phones.

  • Comment number 18.

    I've yet to find any tablet PC that has a touchscreen that's even nearly as responsive as the iPad/iPhone screen. Upsettingly, the iPad puts all of them to shame. I'd like to see some genuine competition to the iPad - Microsoft's Courier could have come incredibly close - except they scrapped the concept.

  • Comment number 19.

    @EMC It's not just about crowd-following, although it's an accusation often levelled at Apple users, and admittedly Apple's marketing is among the best in the world. The spec may be behind the curve, but the products are actually nice to use. To quote a long-used Apple marketing cliché - "it just works." If you're a geek, like many of the people reading this blog, you are probably comfortable navigating any piece of technology you can get your hands on. But that's not Apple's primary market - they want to sell computers to people who don't like computers.

 

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