It’s a given for any device, not just mobile ones. They become a success by meeting the unmet needs of consumers. When looking through the history of portable computer devices, we don’t need a specialist to realize that new devices to access the internet took off because their predecessors were behind in portability, functionality, or affordability. As the PC evolved in the 90s, users were looking for something they could take to more places than just their offices and desks at home.
One of the answers to consumers’ needs of mobility and full functionality came with slate PCs as well as convertible tablet PCs, which were like laptops, but had special hinges so that the screen can be flipped and then folded onto the keyboard. They were targeted to business users who could use it to jot down notes with a stylus during meetings or fill out a predefined form away from the office (think health care and construction industries). These tablets were also appealing to students who used them for note-taking during lectures. But these tablets were priced at $1000-2000 which was above the consumer range, and were actually not so portable – most were above 4 pounds and well over an inch in thickness.
The next milestone was a while later when mobile internet browsing took off with the advent of the iPhone. It featured the best mobile browser at the time and web use was more mobile than ever. The iPod Touch filled the void for people who didn’t want another phone, but wanted web browsing and media playing around the house and on the go. The iPhone and the iPod touch fixed the traditional tablet PC obstacle by providing a portable unit that was reasonably priced.
Apple’s products however didn’t come without limitations. Both just had a 3.2″ screen and the Safari web browser, though earth shattering at the time, still had functionality limitations such as not being able to play Flash and was slower than PC browsers such as Firefox and Internet Explorer even under wifi. Something else needed to save consumers by providing a cheap portable device that has full web browsing functionality.
Netbooks, small and cheap stripped down laptops that usually run on Intel’s Atom processor, came to the rescue. Acer, Asus, and MSI were the early entrants, with every PC manufacturer following. Heck, even Daewoo and Commodore have one. Most netbooks come in the 8.9-10.1″ screen size range, which was still a reasonable sized screen for video playback and surfing. These computers were perfect for web browsing (hence, netbook), priced in the range of $300-500, and weighed around 3 pounds. Consumers now have a low price, fully functional, small and lightweight unit.
The limitations with respect to mobile web surfing of traditional tablet PCs and smart-phones may have been overcome by netbooks. Surely there are payoffs to every device class. Some consumers do view the iPod Touch and netbook as substitutes. What else can the CrunchPad bring to the table that these successful devices couldn’t bring? Considering that the CrunchPad also runs on an Atom processor and sports a 12″ screen, functionality and portability will not be a game changer for it.
TechCrunch’s current branding copy is “Welcome to Couch Computing” with a picture of a model using it on a couch. From my observations through comments on blog posts and Twitter, many have found that the tablet would be ideal for lounging around the house. Can’t you also do that with a netbook you ask? Surely you can, but one can argue that a tablet might prove to be more “couch friendly” since you don’t need to stay seated and put it on your lap or a table. As Arrington and his team have rightly identified, one of the advantages of the CrunchPad reflects the various body postures you can use it in.
They could also find a use in kitchens or as kiosks for businesses, the same markets that all-in-on touchscreen PCs are targeting such as the HP TouchSmart, Asus Eee Top, and Dell Studio One 19. As suggested before, the CrunchPad could also be your formula for finally putting your fitness equipment to use. Outside the house, they might be substitutes for portable DVD players. You may see people carry these in their messenger bags and purses to use while commuting on the train if we assume the it will have a 3G connectivity option.
The CrunchPad’s biggest need that hasn’t been met by netbooks however is e-reading. TechCrunch has been hush about its e-reading capabilities, but this is actually what many users are hoping it can be used for. The CrunchPad may be capable of both e-reading and web surfing, while Amazon’s Kindle is only for e-books. Amazon has its own DRM-restricted format (AZW) for new and old books, but the Kindle does not support PDFs. CEO Jeff Bezos did mention that consumers should expect Kindle books to come to more mobile devices in a similar fashion to the Kindle for iPhone app. Whether Arrington or other hardware developers have had any contact with Amazon is not known.
The CrunchPad’s ultimate success is contingent upon three questions:  what current devices is it a substitute for,  what consumer needs have not been met already, and  do they want to spend $300 on yet another device.