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By 2018, tablets will be obsolete, says legacy smartphone company CEO

Blackberry’s CEO is back giving more awesomely quote-worthy statements to the press as his company tries to make itself relevant once again in mobile computing. This week Thorsten Heins made waves by opining on the limited future of one of tech’s strongest growing device categories: tablets.

He told Bloomberg:

“In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore,” Heins said in an interview yesterday at the Milken Institute conference in Los Angeles. “Maybe a big screen in your workspace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model.”

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins
BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins

Heins’ comments have been mocked mostly for his eye-popping five-year prediction and because of the fresh memories of BlackBerry’s utter flop in the tablet market: the Playbook. But, really, it’s not totally impossible that something much more compelling than tablets may emerge before 2018 that will make iPads or Galaxy tablets unnecessary — that’s just the nature of tech. After all, BlackBerry executives know all too well how quickly an established market can change after watching the iPhone(s AAPL) and Android(s GOOG) decimate its smartphone  business over the last several years.

But, as a factual, across-the-board statement, the notion that “tablets aren’t a good business model” is problematic. There’s at least one company that might argue with him since it’s been doing pretty well in part thanks to its decision to start making tablets in January 2010. Samsung, for its part, seems pretty happy with its decision to get into that business too. Gartner expects the worldwide tablet business to grow from 197 million units this year to 467 million units by 2017.

You know who’s not having a great time in the tablet market? Companies that were late to the game. Like Motorola. And Dell. Don’t forget HP’s Palm(s HPQ) debacle.

And, yes, BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Playbook arrived a year after the iPad, but the software was missing huge, important things, like native email and calendaring. The tablet flopped, and the company wrote off a large amount of unsold devices.

The Bloomberg article reminds us that Heins has previously said he’ll make another Playbook if he can make it profitably. That statement is more in touch with reality: it’s possible that BlackBerry can’t make a tablet that is measurably better than what’s already on the market and do it at a profit. It’s hard to compete with Apple and Samsung at this point, given their strong mobile computing brands and deep supply chains.

Heins seems to be implying that smartphones will be more central to the computing experience, as Matt Rosoff argues here at CITEWorld. That’s certainly plausible, but the idea that BlackBerry will be the one to figure this out is harder to believe.

In any event, Heins’ biggest priority right now is promoting his latest smartphones and the new BlackBerry 10 operating system. The success or failure of those products, as opposed to the future of tablets, will determine if his company is around in five years.

20 Responses to “By 2018, tablets will be obsolete, says legacy smartphone company CEO”

  1. Ernesto Luis Villafuerte Oyola

    I think that if Microsoft or Apple think one day that tablets are not profitable, korean and chinese manufacturers will continue to manufacture them if they find customers to buy tablets. They don’t mind to get a little profit if they can sell a lot of their products. Tablet integration with HDTV is a cool thing. As most of the applications are going to the cloud, tablets don’t need to be powerful, they just need a big screen to connect and maybe a keyboard.

  2. The guys an idiot! Also audio will be the future, but you will still need a tablet to see things, to do certain things -that just can’t be done on the smart phone.

  3. William Volk

    Blackberry’s CEO prediction on tablets has inspired us to launch a puzzle in our iOS crossword game, Crickler.

    The “Worst Tech Predictions EVER” puzzle features Blackberry’s CEO’s Thorsten Heins’ claim that “In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore” and other infamous tech predictions from the past. Notable examples include Michael Dell’s 1997 suggestion that Apple Computer shut down and return their money to shareholders, Sir. Alan Sugar’s claim that the iPod would be dead by 2005.


  4. Gary Dauphin

    “By 2018, tablets will be obsolete, says legacy smartphone company CEO”

    should have read:

    “By 2018, tablets will be obsolete, says failed tablet company CEO”

  5. Dave M

    It’s an interesting question, and who knows, I might even agree with the author, but I’m not going to read about it here because your headline clearly conveys the fact that I will not be getting a measured assessment of his comments.

  6. Christophe T.

    no need for a crystal ball – phones and tablets will merge into a single device – and there will be more wearable computing devices (glasses, shoes, watches, shirts) – until the moment humans are going to be ready to hook there nervous system / brain directly up to a computing device.

  7. vigilant1982

    Well, up to some extent, I do agree with Thorsten. There is nothing a tablet can do which a smart phone can’t. I bought a tablet but I used it hardly, either my laptop or my phone does the job for me.

  8. It strikes me as funny that when a Blackberry makes a prediction like this, it’s probably a veiled admission of failure in that market. When Steve Jobs used to say things like this, the statements foreshadowed Apple’s game-changing entry into that market. It sounds like a fanboy thing to say, I know, but that’s the first thing I thought of while reading this.

  9. The Bear News

    Well even when people said it was a bad idea long ago I knew they would do good,
    BlackBerry needs to give up change to Android with a Really Good BlackBerry Overlay and call it a day. I’m shocked that BlackBerry did not go out of business years ago, but I can tell you if BlackBerry even had me as their C.E.O they would put most if not all Device back in their seats and still have a good price point.

  10. The guy makes a valid point. Productivity still demands a keyboard and mouse, something that a touch UI hasn’t challenged. And for on-the-go work, a netbook/notebook still is king.

    Netbooks may be dead, and once this current mobile bubble bursts, so too will tablets. Intel and Microsoft won’t jeopardize their business future betting on some luxury toy “fad” when their cash cow has always been the desktop and notebook market.

  11. “Tablets themselves are not a good business model.”

    I’m rooting for BlackBerry, but this guy is not helping his company by sounding like he hasn’t the faintest understanding of his market.

  12. Nicholas Paredes

    It strikes me that Xerox Parc’s research on multiple displays is most relevant here. We are more likely to see many more form factors, rather than fewer. The larger issue may be having an OS that scales across the many screens.

    More than likely, the laptop will see lower usage and is likely to be replaced by tablet profiles with keyboards – ie. Windows tablets with a coherent OS. We are also likely to see something akin to a collaborative OS that scales across cloud and multiple devices seemlessly. That I wrote to Steve in 2001 in support of developing a mobile version of OS X with NeXTstep dev tools.

    Alas, the hope that tablets are short lived is wishful thinking at best.

  13. Frank A NYC

    Reading between the lines, ” Our tablet is inferior to others on the market, therefore we will not be making a playbook 2″. Our Z10 is sufficient for people’s needs.

  14. Brian J

    It’s a little hard to take a guy in charge of a nearly irrelevant smart phone company seriously. It mostly sounds like sour grapes. I think that by 2019, laptops will be mostly obsolete. Though I loathe Win8, the attractive part of the Surface is the ability to use a mousepad along with a touch interface for a more versatile experience. The Surface *could* replace laptops, especially in enterprise where portability matters and versatility matter.

  15. Troy Morris

    He actually may have a point. I can imagine, easily, in five or so years that the PC is “in the cloud” and your devices tap into it.

    The list of devices would likely be:

    – Phone (dialer, texter, possibly wearable).
    – Small tablet/smartphone (what we now call phablet)
    – Large monitors (smart and/or via cable or wireless sync to your “phablet” cloud computer)

    The need to carry around 7 or 10″ screen will likely still be needed, but it will probably be executed and thought of differently than what we now identify with tablets and could resemble more like a convertible ultrabook (but more light weight and processing done in the cloud)