Not even Apple understands the tablet market

Apple Inc.

COMMENTARY Just last quarter, iPhone sales took a big dip. Apple (AAPL) was fine as iPads saved the day. This quarter could turn out to be the complete opposite.

If Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu is right, iPad sales will be lower than expected because of the popularity of both Amazon's (AMZN) Kindle Fire table and Apple's own MacBook Air, as ZDNet's Larry Dignon notes. It's a competition sandwich that underscores how little, still, anyone in the tablet market, including Apple, thoroughly understands the dynamics and what people ultimately want to do with the devices.

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Like netbooks, but different

Take the netbook, for example. These supra-sized laptops were supposed to be all the rage -- and they were, for their 15-minute equivalent of fame. A couple of years ago, netbooks bruised notebook sales by selling gazillions. Now? Cue the crickets.

Netbooks are still around, but as people tried the small devices, they realized what they liked and what they didn't care for. The price and weight were great. Keyboard and screen for Windows? Mmm, not so much. The computers were slow and could be difficult to use for normal-sized hands.

But even more important, although less visible, was the issue of what people wanted to do, particularly given an interface designed for a larger screen.

Initial trials are over

Not that the iPad -- or other tablets -- will whimper and crawl to a corner. Far from it. But given what products that Wu thinks are drawing attention, Kindle Fire and MacBook Air, you have to question whether anyone knows, yet, what consumers want from tablets, particularly as we've yet to see any solid numbers (and are unlikely to) for Kindle sales.

The presumption is that Kindle Fire snags the price-sensitive and Amazon fans. The MacBook Air switch is by people who need a lot more than what the iPad can deliver. That throws open a lot of assumptions. What percentage of buyers expected a tablet to be a media access device only? How many realized that they needed more than an on-screen keyboard? What price points will maximize sales?

For most of the Android tablet vendors, the answer to "What do consumers want?" has been, "Something other than what you sell." Maybe Apple has all the answers, but even that seems pretty unlikely. Last quarter, unit sales were up. This month, maybe down. Steve Jobs was certain that a 7-inch tablet couldn't see any success, but Amazon seems to be disproving that.

It's time for everyone to take a step back and reconsider the basic questions. Maybe talk to a lot of customers, do some usability studies, and follow individuals around (with their permission) to better understand how they use the devices. Only some determined research is going to get beyond the seat-of-the-pants navigation that the tech industry seems to heartily embrace so often.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.