Bold Projections for the Tablet Market Need a Dose of Reality

Unwitting ironies were everywhere at the "Untethered: Profitable Media in the Tablet Era" conference this week, the first of what sponsoring business website The Big Money hopes will become an annual conference.

Conferences such as these, focused as they are on technologies whose use and success will be decided by people who never attend such gatherings, often resemble kabuki-style theater. Even the title of the event portends an ideal fate impossible to judge just over two months -- and two million sales -- since the release of the iPad (AAPL). When statistics are bandied about, such as when Forrester Research's Sarah Rotman Epps announced early on that 59 million tablets would be sold by 2015 and would outnumber e-readers three years before then, they come with a hearty spoonful of speculative salt grains. (Forrester, after all, is the same outfit that once predicted e-books would have $7.8 billion in revenue, or 17.5% of the total book market, by 2006.)

Big media company representatives show up with semi-feigned enthusiasm and detail-free plans for how they will make money on the shiny toy du jour, as the iPad is now and other tablets in the works may be. But these same executives can't admit to the crowd that they are hampered from profit and productivity by a third alliterative word, politics.

All of the Talk May Not Matter
If Fundamental Problems Aren't Addressed

What conferences like "Untethered" prove anew is that telling is always trumped by showing and doing. NPR leads the way on the iPad app front, racking up 350,000 downloads to date for an app that moved from conception to completion in just three weeks. Start-ups like Scrollmotion, Vook and Scribd have their ear a lot closer to the ground now that they are less encumbered by the towering overhead burden of their legacy company competitors.

Meanwhile, book publishing executives from Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and McGraw-Hill didn't even mention tablets during a sleepy, substance-free discussion about the future of their industry. And a discussion of the iPad's potential to kill off standalone e-readers was laced in unintentional hilarity, what with iRex Technologies recently filing for bankruptcy protection and two others, Barnes & Noble (BKS) and Spring Design -- whose representatives were seated next to one another -- in litigation over whether Barnes & Noble stole Spring Design's design for the Nook e-reader.

With the exception of Google (GOOG), the companies who matter the most in the digital media and tablet space, Amazon (AMZN) and Apple, were not present, presumably because they are too busy creating and competing for market share to discuss matters in less-than-general terms.

The biggest irony is that all of the talk of tablet content creation may not matter if there isn't enough bandwidth to accommodate demand. If AT&T (T) continues to drop calls and unlimited data plans become a thing of the past, then it's hard to see how this can be a viable market, at least for now. Columbia University Professor Tim Wu, speaking on a panel about "Roadblocks and Headaches", isn't sure: "If [bandwidth] is too congested for tablets, people won't use them."