Someone Really Needs to Make a Good $100 Tablet

Today we heard that the UK is getting jobbed out of its final shipment of $100 TouchPads, with only HP employees being eligible to buy them. Sozzlepops, UK chaps.

But that got us to thinking: With all the fuss over the TouchPad firesale the past few weeks, when will this very obvious demand for a good, cheap tablet be met?

Can It Happen?

First off, yes, there are a ton of reasons why a good, cheap tablet hasn't happened yet. For starters, there's cost. Building the TouchPad cost $306 in materials and manufacturing per tablet, and the 32GB model $328—plus whatever R&D went into it. That's a bloodbath. And no one's really in position to challenge Apple's incredible integration, from supply chain to retail, which allows it to keep its price lower than competitors.

But this can definitely be done, people. The Nook Color is the closest we have so far, but it's a measly 7 inches and still $250. It has also to be rooted to run Android at the moment. Any tablet that's going to make a run at the saliva-inspiring TouchPad price range is probably going to have to run stock Android by default.

What probably needs to happen, though, is for tablets to make a much bigger impact than they have to this point. There's plenty of room: as of May, only 8 percent of Americans owned a tablet, even though 90 percent wanted one. If Amazon's Kindle tablet sells at a hurricane clip, it should go a long way toward pushing down supply chain costs across the board.

And if tablets can make that inroad, it's basically a waiting game for them to hit their sweet spot, like anything else in tech. The first iPhone cost an insane $500 and $600—on contract! Now you can get a 3GS for 50 bucks. And we don't really need anything near that level of price depression to see a good tablet for ~$100. We just need a few generations to go by to lower manufacturing costs to where the previous gen is both good and affordable. Would you jump on an iPad 1 for $150 next year? I think you would.

What It Needs to Be

Know this going in: the TouchPad firesale is in all likelihood a singular event, and you're not going to get this class of hardware for ~$100 anytime soon. But obviously we're willing to make concessions—we're all drooling over the same chunk o' junk that we poo-pooed with lukewarm and disappointed reviews just a few months ago. But it also can't be so dumpy that it's basically one of the cheap ass Android tablets that are already available.

The reason the $100 tablet is so attractive is that every decent tablet to this point has been at least $500. So those of us who want a tablet to be a unitasker device (sorry Alton!), but don't necessarily want to pay handsomely for handsome performance in every other area are sort of stuck. I just want it to read comics; Sam Biddle only wants to watch movies on the subway; Matt Buchanan wanted an Instapaper and magazine machine. I suspect most folks fall into a similar category.

That list of tasks means it probably has to be around-or-about 10 inches, and pretty good quality. The TouchPad's screen was $69, so that's a good chunk of our budget straight away, but we can also probably skimp on accuracy a bit for the capacitive touchscreen to make up a few dollars.

As for what's important specs-wise, it's probably the classics: an above-average processor, a usable amount of RAM, and decent battery life. The TouchPad has 1GB of RAM, but the iPad 2 gets along just fine with 512MB. We could also probably tolerate a thicker profile, and the battery doesn't have to last all day—just long enough to get through a movie on a plane, and maybe catch up on news in the cab.

Who's Going to Step Up?

Whoever makes a run at this is going to have to have an established marketplace in place to reap the benefits of bringing in a huge amount of users with a low-maybe-negative-margin product—sort of like Sony did with PlayStations for several years.

Google seems like a possibility, since they've shown that they're willing to give stuff away just to get people on the internet and in their sandbox. But even with their recent acquisition of Motorola, they don't really have the infrastructure to make a big tablet push.

So it probably falls to Amazon. Again. They have the ecosystem in place to capitalize on a huge influx of users, they're already jumping into the tablet game, and they've already been rumored to consider straight up giving hardware away to funnel customers to their services. And actually, they might already be working on all of this.

Or I suppose the alternative is for us all to start hoping really hard for Samsung to go under so we can make a run on Galaxy Tabs.


You can keep up with Kyle Wagner, the author of this post, on Twitter and sort of Google+.