Apple iPad vs. HP TouchPad: Game On

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.]