The iPad Competitors Will Think Different

| Editorial

Specific design principles and strategic thinking will be used by Apple’s competitors in the design of their own tablets. It may not be what you expect.

Companies that are currently developing products that will compete with the iPad, Hewlett Packard, Google (rumored), RIM, Dell, Samsung and Acer, may not have the technical vision and experience that Apple does with Cocoa touch and other related technologies. On the other hand, they are smart enough to know that they can still compete, acquire customers, and make money with a certain segment of the market.

Dell Streak

The Dell Streak (Credit: Dell)

Fans of Apple feel smug that Apple has an unsurmountable technical and sales lead with the iPad. In fact, all that Apple has done is whet the appetite of those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to buy Apple products. That could be, to some extent, in the U.S., but certainly in other countries.

The Standard Approach

The companies I mentioned above know that there is a hunger for a geekier tablet that can tout some features the iPad doesn’t have. USB ports built-in, a screen with more resolution, perhaps a sleeker 16:10 aspect ratio, maybe an HDMI port, a terminal window (as applicable) and so on. The key, as usual, will be to sacrifice quality, just a bit, to get to a price point below the iPad so that those customers who don’t like the iPad proposition and constraints can feel a special conceit that they have a more accessible, technical device.

Of course, that drags the product down a rabbit hole. Just like the Android-based smartphones, these new tablets won’t have the security, ease of use, and large application selection. However, with clever marketing, these companies know that they can still appeal to a wide audience. In essence, the challenge won’t (and can’t) be to duplicate and surpass the iPad. It will be to figure out a product design that appeals to the rest of the consumer and enterprise market on a broad scale.

Apple enthusiasts will, of course, point to the weaknesses of these new tablets. Because they won’t have the same advanced technologies that Apple has been nursing along for a decade (unnoticed), the feeling will be that the competition has produced inferior, indeed crappy, products. However, they’ll also be annoyed that these competing tablets will sell by the millions to customers with a different mindset. The PC world is highly experienced in understanding that PC mindset, but never mind. The Apple Web will stubbornly refuse to get it.

A Snag

There is one big, unavoidable problem, however, that the competition will have. Right now, companies that produce video, book, and news related apps for the iPad have a single platform to target. For example, Netflix, ABC Player, the Wall Street Journal, E*TRADE, Star Walk, and so on have not had to worry about eleventy-seven different tablets. In 2011, Apple’s competition will have to figure out how to make their own offerings attractive to these developers who, as we know, hate having to develop for multiple platforms. How each player deals with that will determine its success in the tablet space.

Business as Usual

Aside from that, it will be business as usual. A certain segment of the population will be very proud of their, say, new Hewlett Packard/WebOS tablet with all its gizmos. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer will continue to huff and puff about Windows 7 tablets. Writers fond of Apple will keep on blasting anything that does’t seem to exceed the iPad’s overall quality and usability. And iPad competitors will stumble along, some making money and some falling by the wayside.

And so it goes.

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26 Comments Leave Your Own

mhikl

Who cares; as long as You and I get what we want. We want something that works and is amazing; they want something to tinker and isn’t Apple. I still have friends who like shortwave, amateur radio (Morse code for purists) and Pig Latin. As long as Apple makes enough silver and cachet and the little guys know their place, all will be well in the Dominion of Apple. Ha ha, Envyboys.

FlipFriddle

I would argue that if they were smart enough their tablet would be on the market already instead of waiting for Apple to do something and then aping them. That strategy leaves you perpetually behind the curve. Where’s their Big Idea??

Tiger

Let’s see any of the competition deliver a tablet with a 10 hour+ battery life. Especially when you start plugging in USB devices. Remember, that draws power and about all a tablet will be able to support is possibly a keyboard or mouse. MAYBE a flash drive, but then you have to get into the “safely removing devices” issue.

You’re right back at a Windows desktop. What a mess.

And Flips right. Why oh why have none of them come out with a tablet if they’re so up to speed with what everybody wants? Oh yeah. They didn’t want to risk the production costs and have it flop.

Nemo

I agree that very few of the iPad’s competitors will try to take it on as general purpose tablet for the mass market.  However, some, notwithstanding the problems cited by Mr. Martellaro, will do exactly that, in the belief that it is early in the game and they have a shot before the domestic market and many international markets adopt the iPad as the de facto standard.  That is a tough fight, but best prospects for success are now rather than later.  So HP and others will, I think, try to compete now for mass market, for it is now or never. 

Others will try capture big segments of markets by designing tablet that better suit the particular needs and/or desire of that segment.  But this group faces two problems.  First, the iPad/iOS is a very flexible device.  Sticking will the basic iPad, Apple and third parties can do so much with software, both apps and the iOS, to adapt the iPad to even highly specialized markets.  The second problem is related to and prove the first:  The iPad is having surprising success in the enterprise.  Enterprises are rapidly adopting the iPad in numbers and for uses that has, I think, surprised Apple.  So much so that Apple must now consider the enterprise, especially the large enterprise as an important market and must design the iPad and the iOS accordingly. 

But this doesn’t mean, I think, departing from the basic iPad, though, if the market opportunity is sufficiently lucrative, Apple may design special iPad hardware.  But right now, the main innovations for the enterprise seem doable mostly in the iOS and with third-party apps, with the iPad hardware staying pretty unified.  Though a future day may see different iPads, as today we see MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs, Mac Pros, and Xserves, and even two versions of the iPhone.

jonricmd

I agree, John.  Apple tries to develop a product that will be useful and give a “magical experience”.  The others just try to make a product to compete in the category; never mind who created the category.

Clear skies!

OldGuy

Credible competition will benefit us all, it may be what is needed to push Apple to cut its profit margins a bit, and put in the camera necessary to do Facetime on the iPad. 

I anticipate HP’s tablet using a variation of the Palm WebOS, as the most likely competitor. Or something using Android. I’ll be surprised if Microsoft can come up with something that doesn’t look like Windows in a bad drag costume.

Vincent Pao

Adding all the points from the article = A LAPTOP!

Grungeman

I have an Android phone. It is freaking awesome.
I have an iPad. It is also freaking awesome.

I hope that Google and Apple war this out for eternity in all form factors…as consumers we can only win as a result. It doesn’t pay to be a fanboy, because every time the other guy makes something better, your preferred company will improve in response.

Tiger

Grungeman:

THIS!

vasic

In other words, the iPod scenario will play out all over again. Sandisk has made quite a decent living, selling their Sansa and Sanwhatever players, especially outside of the US. However, for nine years, Apple had dominated the field in the way Microsoft dominates desktop. And unlike MS, Apple didn’t have an enterprise legacy lock-in that helped it hold onto the desktop market share. Apple built its iPod dominance on pleasing consumers, one by one.

iPad has the same chance, especially since it is a platform for 3rd-party applications, where developers play significant role in defining the attractiveness of the platform. Apple just needs to hold onto the early lead, and others will have little chance of succeeding, other than doing what Sandisk is doing with music players—making some decent money in some parts of developing world.

John Elberling

3 years from now there will be a wide variety of talbets of all kinds in the market. no one brand will dominate. probably no OEM, including Apple, will have more than a 20%-25% chunk of the market.

but profits are much different that market share bragging rights. and right now Apple is getting over 40% of total smarphone OEM profits with just about 5% of the sales, already far in the lead.

which would you rather have? tops in unit sales, or tops in bottom line profits?

John Martellaro

Mr. Elberling:  That’s a VERY good point!

vasic

That?s a VERY good point!

Well, yes, but… Market share brings developers (we all remember monkey boy Ballmer’s tribal dance…). While Apple is collecting an inordinately large share of profits in the desktop PC market, the 6% market share (by users) makes Windows the default platform for many niche products, while Mac development only happens if there are enough resources.

However, I don’t think Mr. Elberling is entirely correct about iPad having no more than a quarter of the entire tablet market. Mainly because Apple will continue to improve their own product, and I have no doubt, just like the original iPhone retail price was almost $1,000 (and it is now around $650), and the original iPod price was $400 (and a Nano can now be had for $100), so will the retail price of the iPad continue to drop, and there’s a chance the line will expand to models of various sizes.

I’m convinced that the iPad will closely follow the iPod in its market domination. Nine years after introduction, iPod still commands very healthy majority. I believe Apple will make sure the same happens with the iPad.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

John, the piece you left out is Adobe Flash. For all the other devices, it will be more than adequate for writing 95% of the software at 20% of the cost of native tools. Adobe will be aggressive about incorporating support for the components that define the tablet experience: cameras, multi-touch, internet services, app licensing, etc.

Software control is the one feature where competitors must differentiate just to be in the game. Anyone who comes out with a curated app store and no sideloading won’t matter. Apple already has that cornered. The open question is what fraction of device makers will be humble enough to realize that they can’t depend on software and content revenues.

John Elberling

it’s true that developers will target the top selling tablets, no question. but here Apple has the ‘first mover’ advantage with its existing large multi-device iOS user base. so far most apps are first written for iOS and then ported to Android and presumably other platforms subsequently. and as long as Apple holds on to its “premium” high-end market that will always be a preferred target for many developers of paid apps. i don’t see why this pattern would change much.

but iPod history is fundamentally different. first there were no telcos to deal with and in the way for getting established in the market. second there was no strong alternative like Google/Android - MS’ efforts to compete with iTunes/iPod were incredibly lame. and third, global market competition from OEM’s in China, Korea, and India was not a factor, but now is rapidly advancing. Japan offered the only real competition, and practically that meant just Sony - which totally blew its 1990’s Walkman advantage.

John Elberling

@Bosco - Flash won’t disappear, but it is being maginalized because content owners want access to valuable iOS customers. Flash was invented years ago to solve a problem - cross platform web media access - that no longer exists. its heyday is over. nothing lasts forever in digital tech.

you’re right about the “what revenue model will actually work?” question. you can see the problem now with Nokia.

vasic

For all the other devices, it will be more than adequate for writing 95% of the software at 20% of the cost of native tools.

I don’t think that’s correct. Adobe Flash (CS5) costs a lot of money to buy. Development tools for iOS are free to download upon registering as an Apple Developer. The skills needed to learn to develop in Flash aren’t any easier to acquire than skills to learn iOS SDK. In fact, most proper application developers will find iOS SDK more familiar than Flash, which is geared towards visual creative talent, and not programmers.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Actually vasic, there are currently over 1.2 million Flash developers. There probably aren’t 1.2 million developers capable of and interested in creating an iOS app. Additionally, there are a myriad of tools, including Apple’s own Keynote, that can export to swf, which can then be deployed on web or used as input for other tools in the Flash ecosystem. Al Gore, for example, could write his very own Android app when AIR for Android leaves beta this Fall.

App development costs include much more than the cost of tools. My development tools of choice retail for about $1500/year per seat total. If Apple policy let them deploy to iOS, I’d whip out an app a week, and they would all be great apps. Development economics will be the ultimate undoing of iOS. Costs are too high, ROI is uncertain, and the Apple factor can just nullify any investment arbitrarily.

vasic

Brad,

You seem to have some serious personal issue with either Apple, or some of their policies, tools, hardware or software (I can’t tell which). Most anecdotal evidence so far seems to point out that commercial development for iOS is the easiest, most straightforward and quite profitable among mobile platforms. Every single interview (and I"m not talking about developers profiled by Apple) seems to find iOS SDK surprisingly intuitive and more importantly, the concept of walled-garden, curated app store seems to be the best part of the whole deal. If your app is good, you have an excellent chance of actually earning money on it. For that element alone, it is worth picking up the SDK and figuring out how to use it.

And Adobe’s number of 1.2 million Flash developers is grossly inflated and includes those who have no clue what software development is, but have bought Flash (as a component of Adobe CS Web Premium) to occasionally put up a photo gallery using some Flash templates. These are precisely the ones guilty of saturating the web with crap Flash content that could have easily be done with HTML and Javascript. If you take out all those graphic and web designers with some basic Flash skills and count those who actually know what is Actionscript and how to write it, the numbers will likely not be much greater than the numbers of iOS developers.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter much how Flash is created if sites are out there that need it. Apple has successfully acquired the lead with the iOS platform, which has resulted in strong motivation of many web property owners to move away from it. As Apple continues to expand their Flash-less presence, marginalisation of Flash will likely continue. Anyone currently invested in Flash development will likely give it a serious thought about exploring alternatives (HTML5 for simple stuff, or a SDK for serious development). If your content can successfully be presented using HTML5 (and it seems that many high-profile content owners seem to agree), why would you want to choose Flash, which covers less than 70% (and shrinking) of active mobile market, when HTML5 covers 100% of that market.

As for the total cost of Apple development, you haven’t elaborated on it, and I"m struggling to find out how can it cost more than your $1,500 per year figure. Tools are free, membership is free, and even to deploy applications cost only about $100 per year. So, where exactly does the “much more than cost of tools” come from? And how does it compare to any other commercial development environment?

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@vasic… The total cost of iOS development is high because it requires knowledge and use of Objective-C. Time has value.

There are 1.2 million Flash developers because developing Flash does not require knowledge and use of Objective-C. There are a lot of programmers who feel very good about themselves because they can code up an app in some C variant. And then there are the successful developers who find the tools that give them the most for their time.

That’s one reason Flash isn’t going away, and one reason why Flash is coming to kick Apple’s ass grin. The other reason Flash isn’t going away is because it will cause such grief to the haters.

chicochaz

I hope that Google and Apple war this out for eternity in all form factors?as consumers we can only win as a result. It doesn?t pay to be a fanboy, because every time the other guy makes something better, your preferred company will improve in response.

Yes, competition is the best thing we can hope for!

Neil

There are a lot of programmers who feel very good about themselves because they can code up an app in some C variant.

Objective C is a variant of C.  If you are proficient in C/C++ a programer can easily program in Obj-C.  If you program in ObjC, you can code for both the Mac and the iPHone/iPad/iPod Touch. 

However, it is all about choice anyway.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@Neil: Having 20 years experience in commercial software development, from desktop apps to mobile (I wrote a remote courthouse database research system for use with the first Palm phones by Qualcomm) to client/server, I can tell you without reservation right now that if you’re writing your application in a C variant, you’re doing it wrong. Some code needs to run fast. Write that in C. But your time is much better spent in higher level languages that hide all the stupid, mundane details like reference counting or even basic window construction. By hiding those things, they make it less likely the programmer can screw them up, and more likely that the programmer’s time is spent actually solving the problem at hand. It also means that more people with wider experience and ideas to bring to software development can create better apps.

Apple’s policies on third party tools and frameworks go completely against everything that good software engineers and good businesspeople know about the software development game. This crap about lazy companies and not everyone wanting to jump on every yearly revolution Apple brought to the Mac platform is horse shit. Apple’s policies are simply a control game that would not pass any reasonable and knowledgeable person’s smell test if they considered the bare facts. But the market will conform to the reality of development economics in time. Flash and other RIA platforms will dominate simply because they make app development more accessible and less expensive.

You’re right. It is all about choice. Given the choice to use other tools, you’d have about 30 chest thumping C programmers who don’t regularly use soap or toothpaste using Apple’s tools to build apps.

JonGl

John, the piece you left out is Adobe Flash. For all the other devices, it will be more than adequate for writing 95% of the software at 20% of the cost of native tools. Adobe will be aggressive about incorporating support for the components that define the tablet experience: cameras, multi-touch, internet services, app licensing, etc.

hm. Regarding Flash:
http://blog.laptopmag.com/mobile-flash-fail-weak-android-player-proves-jobs-right

I have serious doubts that Flash will be a major factor.

Adam

Testing

ericrumsey

A prime example of the “advanced technologies that Apple has been nursing along for a decade (unnoticed)” is ... WebKit ...

Unnoticed indeed—WebKit is often not mentioned in discussions of iPad/iPhone and its competitors, but it’s been critical to the success of the iPhone & iPad.

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