The good (or at least decent) $89 tablet

Right around a year ago, I wrote about the difficulties of making a good $100 tablet. But then, today, I read on Slashdot about someone finding a nice $45 Android tablet in a Chinese bazaar, then finding a similar unit at Fry’s back home in the States, priced at $89.

That raised a couple of questions. First of all, what’s the tablet?

I suspect what he found was something similar to the Kocaso M760W, which isn’t perfect, but it’s $89. Some users report trouble getting all apps to run on it, but with a half-gig of RAM and a 1.2 GHz CPU, it ought to be up to the tasks of media consumption and basic e-mail, which is what many people buy 7-inch tablets to do. If you need a serious tablet, you’re better off with a higher-end unit that costs 2-4 times as much. But for basic needs, here’s something that can do the job and costs about as much as an e-ink e-reader.

And for the tinkerer, I’m sure alternative firmware to solve the locale issues will eventually surface. As word gets out about this unit, it’s bound to sell.

I think there’s room for stratification in the market. At the high end, there’s Apple, for people who want the Apple experience. At the low end, right now we have Google and Barnes & Noble and Amazon and others battling it out with 7-inch tablets in the $150-$300 range. But who says that needs to be as low as it goes?

Sure, I could hand a Kindle Fire to my boys for them to watch a video while we’re waiting in a restaurant, but wouldn’t I rather hand them an $89 tablet? And at $89, how worried am I about obsolescence? I’m not. The hardware is good enough to at least play MP3s and DVD-quality video for as long as it keeps working, and $89 isn’t a bad price for a media player that can handle light web browsing and e-mail. If it breaks in two years, I’ll be able to buy another one, and that one is guaranteed to be nicer.

In 1990 and 1991, Commodore was still selling a million nearly obsolete C-64 computers per year at around $100 each, at a time when a million units was still an impressive number. For $500, you could get a PC/XT clone (or a really shoddy PC/AT clone) that could do a lot more, but not everyone had $500.

And the capabilities gap between an $90 Android tablet and a $400 Ipad is narrower than the gap between that C-64 and that XT clone.

Do I think hardware is dead? Not necessarily. I think lower prices will lead to more widespread adoption, especially if the cheap hardware delivers some goods. And $89 tablets will wear out a lot faster than LCD televisions do, because they get handled a lot more, and they have a battery inside with a finite lifespan. That means the people who buy these $89 tablets today will be buying another one when the battery goes dead. And who knows, maybe next year, when a better $89 tablet is available, they’ll upgrade and give last year’s model to their kids.

I’ve been wondering for a decade what would happen if someone tried Commodore’s business model again. I think we’re about to find out.

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