Apple iPad vs. HP TouchPad: Game On

| Editorial

The tablet wars are just beginning. HP won’t ship its touchpad until summer. Apple, it is rumored, will ship its second generation iPad in April. PlayBook and Xoom loom. The game has just begun, but we can still place some bets.

If I were to predict, right now, who the two front runners will be in the tablet wars, I’d start by thinking about what makes a tablet appealing to everyday consumers and how consumers get exposed to the product. For example, Apple’s iPad is incredibly easy to use and you can pick one up at lots of friendly retail locations: Apple, AT&T and Verizon retail stores. That’s a winning combination.

Then I’d start thinking about the strategy employed by the iPad competitors. Is the product too geeky? Are there too many compromises? Its it to hard to use? Does it have built-in impediments and marketing gotchas which, if proposed to Steve Jobs, would result in having your desk cleaned out and being escorted out of the building within minutes.

Finally, I’d look at the track record of the company. Does it have experience integrating hardware and software? Does it have experience with consumer products? Does it know how to see to completion an ad campaign by ad pros who know how to create a sense of magic, wonder and excitement for advanced technology?

The Players

We have along way to go in this war, but it’s worth sizing up the competition so far. First, I am not impressed by what I’ve seen of the BlackBerry PlayBook. RIM has been focused on the enterprise too long, and they’re new to the software-as-an-ecosystem game. The choice of a 7-inch screen is questionable. I don’t see the PlayBook surviving in the tablet wars.

The Xoom looks good on paper, and it has a lot of nice gadgets like a barometer in addition to the obligatory gyro and accelerometer. What I wonder about is whether the every day consumer is going to become excited about the prospect of a tablet from Motorola. Unlike a phone, the customer has to sense that the tablet company has a rich heritage in not just personal electronics but personal computing in the broadest sense, builds a wide range of products, and is not just in the tablet market for a buck.

In fact, that’s the crux of the whole tablet wars. A tablet is a complete system engineering project. In 2011, customers are putting stakes in the ground with respect to the future of ebooks, magazines, newspapers, video delivery, and personal communication. They’re going to size up a tablet with regard to the long term prospects for their tablet life.

It’s one thing to put together a cute tablet, try to jazz it up with gadgets, use a 16:10 screen to make it look like a video toy, and drop an OS on it from a third party company, Google, who doesn’t have a lot of hardware experience. It’s quite another to invest one’s computing life in a serious systems integrator, consumer electronics giant, and a company that’s looking at the long haul.

Which brings me to Hewlett-Packard

The Horse to Bet On

This week, as I closely followed the unfolding of the HP TouchPad, I got the feeling from the tech community that HP is a horse to bet on. HP made some very smart design decisions and they showed us a certain chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, but one born of confidence and a company strong and deep in engineering. HP has taken control, squeezed Microsoft out of the picture, and will build the hardware and the software for the TouchPad. The company has many retail outlets. It has roots in the consumer industry with its PCs and printers. (Let’s not talk about inkjet costs here.)

The net result of this is that while some technical websites get all weak-kneed about certain tablets, I got the feeling that the more experienced community as a whole thinks the HP Touchpad can give Apple a run, work solidly from second place, and become a long-term, competitive alternative to the iPad.

HP Touchpad

Of course, that all assumes that HP doesn’t make any mistakes between now and the summer ship date, namely:

  • HP might make it too hard to sync and backup, or they could develop something brilliant. Jon Rubinstein and his team, in my book, will come through on that.
  • HP might get greedy and try to equal Apple’s 30 percent cut on apps and publisher products. Or they might lean towards and edgy, cut-throat kind of competition and try to cash in on the annoyance with Apple’s too-high 30 percent tax rate. After all, the goal is to sell as many TouchPads as possible at the outset, not try to bite off too much and beat Apple at its ecosystem game.
  • HP could end up falling into carrier agreements that upset customers and smother the initial customer enthusiasm for the hardware and software.
  • HP could screw up the advertising campaign by focusing on technology, bad mouthing Apple, or by being just plain juvenile. They’ll need a cool, adult, self-confident campaign that ignites the customer’s imagination and reminds them who HP is as a company.  
  • HP could set the price too high and thus make price an issue. They copied the iPad size and form factor for a reason. Equivalent pricing is also important. It may be hard.
  • HP might not be able to enlist enough developers, make development a delight, and not make a satisfactory case for development on their platform. Without thousands of apps out of the gate, the TouchPad is doomed. HP will have to invest a lot of money, at first, to jump start a third tablet OS platform in a world already dominated by iOS and Android apps. This is no time to blink.

If HP doesn’t make any mistakes at all, they can secure a solid second place in the tablet wars and continually battle Apple for both technical leadership, market share and the hearts of consumers.

Watching to see if Hewlett-Packard can do that will be a lot of fun.

[UPDATE: this just in, a rumor on the TouchPad pricing.  If true, that’s mistake #1. I’m counting.]

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Comments

CTOatGFU

I agree, HP, a respected player does have a chance to at least be the best alternative to Apple. WebOS is a key piece of the puzzle. We are now seeing alternative Internet driven operating systems that make sense. In fact we are very impressed with Google’s new Chrome laptop. And Microsoft is not part of the conversation, but they will hang on for a long slow death trying to convince us that Windows based solutions are critical because we shouldn’t trust Internet connectivity.

geoduck

Well argued.
I agree that the Xoom (it only sounds like Zune) and the PlayBook are essentially DOA. Especially now that there is a serious second option (HP) for those that want Anything But Apple. There will still be those that want Android (like my brother) but frankly Moto has a bit of a rep and so I think a lot of them will go to the other Android Tablets. That side of the market is seriously fragmented. And the PlayBook, well like you said RIM is so Enterprise focused they don’t really know what to do with this new world. They also don’t have the deep pockets needed to keep pushing a losing product for a couple of years needed to gain traction. Plus if they keep losing phone market share they could be in a real bind in a couple of years.

{Disclaimer: I have a company BlackBerry and my last personal cell phone was a Motorola both are terrible. That may have tainted my opinion.}

MikeInTN

I think HP should have stuck with the “Slate” term.  Having a “Pad” reinforces the fact that this is nothing more than a me too copy cat device,  at least Xoom, Galaxy, and the Playbook are orginal names.  HP’s CEO recently said they could be as cool as Apple, hard to do when the only think you know how to do is copy Apple and make printers.

cb50dc

HP could screw up the advertising campaign by focusing on technology, bad mouthing Apple, or by being just plain juvenile.

And by straining for faux-hipster irony in mimicking Apple’s “I’m a Mac” series. hmmm

mhikl

The confusion of the TouchPad was no mistake; maybe pure genius. It’s like saying, “Ya, we look like iPad, so what!” I think it is so bold, it’s ballsy. There’s even some horns around. HP’ll do swell.

xmattingly

I think it’s good to finally see a solid competitor enter the market that Apple created… even if it is a me-too device. From a business perspective, it was a smart move to buy and implement Web OS rather than remain on the margins under Microsoft’s OS & licensing fees. It’s nice to see a PC maker break out of that hegemony.

Two things that are (or, will most likely) be a strike against HP:

1. They do not have a comparable iTunes media ecosystem. I’m sure the Rubinstein gang will build something smart, but it will not have the clout, maturity, or pool of applications that is built into Apple’s media center.

2. Price. The fact that they don’t have an announcement on that means that a) they haven’t solidified the build cost and/or b) it’s not good news. I’m sure we all remember that most were predicting Apple’s tablet to debut around $1000, and natch, Jobs enjoyed knocking the press to the floor when he announced the entry price. And to date, no other tablet maker has been able to compete with that.

Even so, I believe Mr. Martellaro has it right by suggesting that HP will play second fiddle to the iPad, which I’m sure will still be very profitable for them.

Peter

I’m not convinced about the Xoom, but for different reasons.

See, the problem is that Xoom is being sold through Verizon.  I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of iPads out there are not the 3G model.  Most iPads I’ve seen are WiFi and were purchased from Apple.  Verizon is where I might go to buy a cellphone, not to buy a tablet for around the house.

The Xoom is great (assuming you like Android) and they have some interesting things going on in the house.  I like the “big screen” link (ie, dock it with your TV and get even more real estate).  But, again, I’m not buying things like that in Verizon—I’m doing that in Best Buy or Fry’s or someplace like that.  I don’t think Motorola has the “retail” experience.

As you mention, price is an issue.  That’s one reason that Motorola loves Verizon.  You may be able to “buy” a Xoom for less than an iPad, but you subsidize it with Verizon service.  So Motorola can charge Verizon more than the iPad knowing that they’ll pay it and make it up from the customer.

Partsmutt

The HP tablet looks god for many reasons.  Not the least of which is the fact that they’ve shunned a Microsoft OS.  However, as large and successful as HP is, they have had a _horrible_ record with mobile devices in the past few years.  Their laptops are among the worst in reliability.  Consumers looking for a non-Apple bright and shiny gadget might buy in. However I think the tech savvy non-Apple crowd will likely pass on this.

HP reliability: http://www.brighthub.com/computing/hardware/articles/70899.aspx?image=75982

On a personal note, as much as I absolutely love my Macs, for many years now, iOS isn’t a fave at all.  It works for the iPod well enough I guess, and God help us when Lion comes out and they smear it all over OS-X, but I look forward to seeing something better.  Microsoft isn’t capable, so someone needs to step up.  I’d even be interested in this HP if it wasn’t HP.  I’ve learned that lesson from the HP laptop from my employer that is continuously breaking.

Jamie

I also think that it would appear an actual challenger has entered the game. Looks pretty slick, iPad-ness notwithstanding. smile

Still, beyond perhaps the ?ber-geeky it probably isn’t isn’t likely that any new tablet is going to make anyone chuck the iPad they paid $800 for into the trash when they see it.

So far as crushing Apple and market share goes, now that iOS has aged a little, I’d be curious to see the numbers on total devices in use vs. the usual ‘number of activations’ or web-based data (i.e. browsers, etc.) from which comparisons are usually drawn. The Mac has always been undercounted because of its longevity; the systems are functional and in use many years after purchase in numbers much proportionately higher than their PC counterparts (I used a G5 all the way from Jaguar to Leopard with nary a hiccup. Actually Snow Leopard, but they had changed the chipset by then. During that period my brother had gone through three Windows machines). Couldn’t the same be true of iPhones, iPods, and ultimately iPads? Just curious.

Equally interesting would be to see those numbers contrasted with Android devices. Some are very solid but most are awfully cheap. My guess is the turnover is far greater. And FWIW I still have an iPhone 3G that runs 4.2 like a champ. Great to keep them around for jail-breaking.

lrd

No iTunes. No iBooks.

And by the time the TouchPad goes up for sale, the iPAD would have 100,000 native apps. And many of the more compelling apps would have been perfected by then- not good for HP.

No to mention that the iPAD 2 would be out by then too. What does this mean?

Well, Apple will lower the price of the original iPAD with 16GB, 3G & WIFI by say $100. And that back fill the displace price with the newer iPAD 2 with more memory, more features.

Making it very difficult for a competitor to squeeze in.

wab95

John:

Spot on analysis.

I think there are four categories of challenges/threats for any up and coming tablet, which you’ve addressed here.

1) Ecosystem: It has to be a complete solution, or as complete as current technology permits. It needs to integrate with existing desktop solutions (hard and software), backup, and cloud-based support. A stand-alone is, as we say in medicine, DOA and DNR (dead on arrival and do not resuscitate).

2) Consumer - oriented: The consumer space is driving sales for all ultra-portalbes. People do not want to have to have one device for the office and another for home. They want one device, and that device, to have visceral appeal, must be easy to use, fun to use and do want people want it to do. Most importantly is the ‘ease of use’. If I have to spend personal man-hours geeking out to get the magic out of device (which I am perfectly capable of doing, but have no real ‘man-hours’ to spare most days), then that tablet will stay on the store shelf. What Apple have done with the engineering is not simply great hard and software, they have invested time and thought into simplifying systems and functional access. Instead of effectively having to write lines of code, all I have to do is push a button, and the magic happens. Not only can I be up and running out-of-the-box, I can give this to my wife, kids, or my mum with no worries. Huge factor.

3) Apps: In 2011, no one is going to plunk down hundreds of dollars, pounds or euros for a stand-alone toy. The OS creates the environment for the consumer experience, the apps define it. Not only must there be apps, they need to be easily accessible, worth paying for, and, as you point out, hold promise for future life and accessibility. This is a steep hill to climb.

4) Price: Apple have done all of the above, which represent an enormous investment in the future of their devices, and then aggressively priced the finished product. They are effectively soaring in the thin air, and competitors risk not being able to endure at that altitude. I see supply lines being stressed and crumbling among most of the competition, simply on the basis of cost if they are to match specs and price with Apple.

Of all, I agree 100%, HP are the best poised to strike, engage and endure.

Game-on, indeed.

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