iPad Competitors? Send In The Clones

| Just a Thought

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that darn near every new smart phone being released looks like the iPhone, and almost every tablet coming out looks like the iPad?

Is there no other form factor that works for these devices. Must they all look like cheap knockoffs of Apple’s devices? Can’t some hardware engineer somewhere come up with a design that does things differently, if not better, than the way Apple does it?

What is the deal here? Is there a complete dearth of creativity in hardware design these days? Has Apple hired up every designer with even a hint of originality, leaving the rest of the industry with soulless zombie hacks to pick over? Are there no CEOs with a vision and the guts to take a chance on a hunch other than Steve Jobs?

Currently, beyond some minor dimensional tweaks and pumped specs, the only real differentiator between the iPad, for instance, and other tablets is the OS and other software these devices support. And while it’s probably clear to most of you that I prefer iOS, the reality is that as time goes on there is increasingly less difference between it and Android, so even that isn’t a huge differentiator, at least not where it matters.

Don’t point out better screens, faster processors, and more memory as the places where the differences lie, either. To that I cry bullocks! Wait a few months and all of that changes. It’s not the speed of the guts that makes a device different, it’s how it’s designed to be used, and every one is designed to be used exactly the way the iPad is used.

About this time last year Microsoft, of all people, had a promising design for a tablet that was so markedly different from the iPad that it could have been a real contender.

MS Courier

The ill-fated MS Courier.
(Photo courtesy of Engadget)

The Courier offered a different and innovative way to use a tablet. The OS and the hardware was designed around the concept of a journal, and its dual screens and snazzy interface seemed to beg to be touched and played with. Would the Courier have worked? Who knows. Least of all Microsoft, who killed the idea before it got any real legs.

Who says one screen is better than two? How do we know that a stylus wouldn’t be a better tablet interface (if done right) than your finger?

The Courier was the last truly unique tablet design I’ve seen from any vendor that had any chance of being a real product and giving Apple some real creative competition.

I don’t care about the silly little “unique” features the Xoom or the Playbook has, the iPad has the capacity to do any and all of them with minor tweaks. At the end of the day, if you have one of those devices what you really have is a Motorola or Blackberry branded iPad.

The same is true for most phones. I don’t care what OS it runs, it’s what they get the OS to do that matters, and all these phone makers seem to want to do is be a better Apple than Apple.

Sony (again, of all people) showed an interesting watch a few years back that linked to other Sony devices to share data. You could control your music player or cellphone from the watch, accepting calls or listening to tunes through a Bluetooth headset. It was another interesting idea, this one became an actual product.

It’s something that Apple didn’t create, something that is pretty darn cool in its own right, even if it’s not selling like cold lemonade on a hot Summer day.

Here’s the thing; Apple does a great job of designing and setting trends, but not all of their design choices are great ones. The earbud is a classic example of what I consider to be horrible design, yet everyone, from top notch audio companies to knock-off factories deep in the heart of China pumped these things out like they were God’s gift to the human ear.

I just wish someone, somewhere would have the cojones big enough to back a design that has nothing to do with how Apple does it. That’s all.

Why is that so hard?

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Agreed. Competition is usually better for buyers. I’d like to see someone push Apple, competitively, to give us even better products. I’m not sold on aluminum cases (which conduct electricity), or slippery cases that can’t withstand drops, tiny 3.5” to 4” screens, glass that easily cracks or breaks, heavy batteries that drain too fast and so on.. How about a loop for a strap (to pull a non-slippery device from your pocket)?

I’d like Apple to solve all these issues, but if no one pushes them, it will take a lot longer to see such solutions appear.


It’s like inventing the wheel, Vern. In the beginning there was the travois, two crossed poles dragged behind with a precursor to the suitcase attached. Then came the square wheel. (I saw this on some Carry On . . . movie) which was a start but went no where fast. I’m sure some one thought of a hexagon shaped wheel but then along came some Apple type guy and chiselled out a circular wheel from some granite slab and then Bob’s your uncle, everyone started to copy him.

All this is due to lack of imagination. Where are octagon or enneakaidecagon or the tricontagon wheels? What a way to put the kybosh to innovation.

Such has happened in the tablet age. Apple will suffer on in infamy for the death of tablet innovation with Steve running around crying, “Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it in fa me!

Life is not fair so we will have to put up with iTablets as they be.


In Palaeontology there is a concept called Convergent Evolution. that is that creatures that do the same thing tend to end up looking the same. Ichthyosaurs and Dolphins for example. One design works better for a particular way of life than all the others.

In computing there used to be all sorts of ways to interact with your computer. Now there is effectively one: The GUI. OS-X, Windows, Linux have all gone GUI. Sure there are some systems that use command line but they tend to use flavours of UNIX so the language is similar. In any event they survive in specialized environments, servers for example, rather than competing in the broader ecosystem.

Phones went through an evolution. There used to be brick phones, satchel phones, Palm PDA-phones, flip phones, and on and on. slowly they are all converging on one design: a thin slip with a touch screen on one side plus or minus a slide out keyboard. (I think of RIM and the classic BlackBerry as being akin to the Terror Birds like Gastornis (aka Diatryma): an archaic design that worked well in one particular environment but one day the land bridge formed, iPhones moved in and they are having trouble competing. This is why RIM is jumping on the thin piece with a touch-screen bandwagon.

You are right. Tablets are an odd one. It’s like the companies just are assuming that Apple got it perfect. As if Pikaia appeared and everyone else just said “Yup, that’s as good as it gets” and never bothered with fish or lizards or birds or people. At this point in the development of Tablets you would expect much more diversity. Where are the Tablet equivalents of Echinoderms and Arthropods.


Companies need not copy apples products but copy their thought process and that is to not copy anyone.

Lee Dronick

The thin third dimension not withstanding a “tablet” is going to berectangular two dimension object. Any other shape is probably not going to be practical.

However, (pregnant pause) mhikl’s comment about hex shaped wheels got me thinking about a polygon holder for an iPad. You could “nook” it in your elbow, resting against the bicep, and wrap your fingers around the opposite end. That way you may have a stable hold for one handed text entry, drawing or whatever, yet have the tablet surface clear. Just dreaming out loud.


While I agree a lot of companies (samsung, namely) try to mimic the iphone, there is a reason in that - it is a very visually appealing device. On the other side of the fence, OS and device wise, they are becoming incredibly diverse with android definitely taking a huge lead with Honeycomb. Apple is really going to have to wow people with a redesigned interface here - they’re being pushed quite hard and may end up falling behind in the coming years should we all have to continue using the same visuals on every ios device (referring to custom oses on android via apps and themes and the widgets vs iphones that all look 100% the same)


polygon holder for an iPad

How about shaped like a classic painters palette. A pleasing oval shape with a hole and a notch in one side to make holding it easier. More space around the edge for impact resistance and no sharp corners.

Lee Dronick

How about shaped like a classic painters palette. A pleasing oval shape with a hole and a notch in one side to make holding it easier. More space around the edge for impact resistance and no sharp corners.

Exactly, thinking outside of the box.


The closest thing to an un-Apple tablet is Dell’s Inspiron Duo.


Now, I just wish Apple would come back out with decent, competitively priced printers. It’s a market looking for a shakeup!


Umm, isnt it kind of convenient how the Iphone 4 looks remarkably like a smaller Evo?

Or how now there is rumors of a bigger screen on the iphone 5, yet Jobs blasted other phones(Evo’s, Droid X’s) for being so big??

Funny you say clones, where Apple is following the same suit.

Lee Dronick

Umm, isnt it kind of convenient how the Iphone 4 looks remarkably like a smaller Evo?

Yes and the Evo looks like a clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, the shape hasn’t changed in 6000 years.


Well. Apple added cameras to Ipod later in the game. So why did Apple copy?


It’s funny but the only thing I don’t like about the iPhone is the iOS. Apple has spent so much time locking it down so people can not do what they want they have made it useless. I can’t wait until I get my galaxy S next month.


The reason the physical designs of these devices are all so similar is that consumers have strong preferences for a certain set of characteristics:  A large, rectangular, high resolution, touch sensitive screen on a thin, light device with good battery life.  Apple understood this set of needs before anyone else.  At this point, deviating from these preferences gives you a device people don’t want; look at what’s happening to RIM and Nokia.

Most of the innovation now is happening in areas that don’t affect the form factor.  For example we’re seeing NFC in more and more Android phones, and probably iPhones someday.  Ditto with 4G data, dual-core CPUs, and hardware graphics acceleration.  There is plenty of room for innovation, just not so much with the primary form factor where there are strong consumer preferences at work.

Vern Seward

Sir Harry makes an interesting point, “tablets” will be shaped like tablets. To that I say that It doesnt that a lot to make a tablet unlike other tablets.

Why not a square tablet that mimicks an open book? How about a thin tablet with a cover that acts as an input device (kind of like a sideways laptop)? Maybe a light weight tablet that is inexpensive and serves limited functions? (think eBook readers designed for writing or web browsing.)

Will any of these ideas work? Who knows, and we won’t know because no one bothers to try.

Speaking of which, I should have pointed to eBook readers as a different kind of tablet. They are cheap, lightweight, and have dedicated functions. They are the only real iPad alternative today.



they already did propose other form factors…
just google ces 2011 tablets…
if you’re expecting one that’s round or oval you’ll wait a long time.They’re just touch screen laptops without a keyboard (some do even have a sliding keyboard).
after all tablets did not start with apple, enterprises have been using them for a long time.
apple just capitalised on its well known ios with its existing appstore and the success of amazon kindle to sell it to the masses.
when i first saw the ipad even before listening to steve jobs i sort of knew what it was: a big ipod touch.
That does not diminish in any way apple’s accomplishment.
it took a lot of guts and a quality product for cheap not to mention the 10 hours battery life.

Vern Seward

That’s only because consumers are only presented with limited choices. If the Courier had made it to production I think you’d have seen a different set of preferences.


Lee Dronick

Sir Harry makes an interesting point, ?tablets? will be shaped like tablets. To that I say that It doesnt that a lot to make a tablet unlike other tablets.

I think that the rectangular shape has been worked out over the ages to be the most practical for a tablet. Even physical books are essentially a series of tablets.

John Molloy

The problem with the Courier is that is was a fantasy project from a team of graphic designers. There was no Courier Project to cancel.


Perhaps the Courier would have done well; it’s arguing a hypothetical.  However the landscape is littered with failed tablets.

A key point is, copying is often a sound business strategy.  Chrysler invented the minivan and enjoyed breakthrough success for a time, but now Toyota and Honda sell far more of them.  Atari invented the home videogame unit, but now others profit.  Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Apple borrowed heavily from others to build their core products (CP/M, WordPerfect, MySpace, Lycos/Altavista, Overture, Xerox Alto).  Right or wrong, copying—and innovating on top of—others work is often the smart thing to do.

Lee Dronick

Chrysler invented the minivan


Mike Wilkie

heavy batteries that drain too fast

You can criticize Apple for many things, but I don’t think battery life is one of them. Apple puts more energy into developing batteries than any other tech company. Apple products have fantastic battery life and it only seems to get better with each product update. Could they be better still? Sure, there’s always room for improvement. But Apple’s not slacking on battery engineering in any way, shape, or form.


  1297927418 said:

  Chrysler invented the minivan


Conestoga wagon

Lee Dronick

Conestoga wagon

Now your hitting close to home, my mother’s family is from that part of Pennsylvania. However, the Conestoga wagon only had a single bench seat, it was more of cargo wagon.

Anyway, we can bring this thread on topic. Chrysler invented the minivan in the way that Apple invented the tablet computer. Chrysler took the Volkswagen Type2 concept from being a relatively niche product to the mainstream. Apple took the tablet to the mainstream.

Sidebar - I have owned two VW vans, one a camper, and that is how I got to dine at Apple Headquarters. I was on a Type 2 email list and met a fellow online who worked at Apple. When he learned I was driving my VW up to the Bay Area he invited me to visit his work. I am currently in between owning a Type 2 and am on the lookout for a good deal on one.

canadian mac guys

i would say that from what i’ve seen it’s the os that is really dictating the form factor. unless if you deviate you will loose the developers making the apps for your os. and really that is where the cool factor is IMO.

sir flash: i have a 77 type II i’m selling, but i live in calgary canada.

Lee Dronick

sir flash: i have a 77 type II i?m selling, but i live in calgary canada.

I want a Splitty smile

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