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Android, Technology

Tablet Computing: Apple Only?

For those that don’t know, HP decided to ditch it’s tablet computing division last week and let the remaining Touchpad stock go at fire sale prices.  This has led some to proclaim that the tablet market is Apple’s, and only Apple’s – the one true tablet! Balderdash, of course, but sensationalism sells.  However, Apple does have a pretty solid hold on the tablet market that it in effect created – why shouldn’t it continue to do so?  Well, there are a few reasons for it’s current lock, and unfortunately for Apple they are self limiting in exactly the same way the iPhone market dominance was and why it’s been losing ground steadily to Android in the smart phone arena.

The primary reason Apple has the tablet market locked down is of course that it was first to market with a complete, polished multimedia platform that had great vertical integration via iTunes.  While weak initially as an eReader, with Kindle and other apps it made up that ground quickly.  And Apple fans bought it up by the zillions simply because it was the latest and greatest Apple product, creating the market for tablets out of thin air.

Evidence that it was bought by fans simply because it was an Apple product is pretty easy to come by.  For me the most telling is that one of the most popular accessories is iPad cases that you slot it into to give it a keyboard and stand up the display as a monitor.  Seriously?  Why not just buy a netbook and be done with it?  People bought it because it was Apple’s latest and greatest, and then have to use cumbersome workarounds to get it to act like the computing platform they need.  If you need a netbook instead of a multimedia tablet, you shouldn’t be buying a far more expensive, far fewer productivity apps, have to get accessories to use it at all work around.

Regardless, Apple put out a great product with good support and lots of apps and infrastructure to support it.  The rest of the industry was caught completely flat footed, as the tablet market had been tried already around 2000 and failed pretty much completely.  Apple’s managed to carry the day in a way that only Apple had the resources and user base to do so.

So why can’t they keep the market to themselves?  Competitors have been falling all over themselves to offer similar products, and so far no real traction has caught for them as evidenced by HP’s complete abandonment after only a few months of their own Touchpad, and other companies aren’t doing much better.

The answer is, they are too early to market in their attempt to compete.  By rushing imitation products out the door, they are missing two key features that make a tablet a desirable device:

  • A smooth, easy to use OS designed for use on a tablet device.  WebOS and Android just aren’t geared for it, and it shows.
  • Vertical integration with multimedia services.  iTunes is already out there and ready to serve up media, and it’s no difficulty at all for uses to switch to a new device.

And unfortunately for Apple, those two factors are self limiting.  Time will erode both of them fairly quickly.  Android Honeycomb is a hasty hack at a tablet OS, but Ice Cream Sandwich surely be far better developed.  Google has already done it once with Android – it only took a couple of iterations before it caught up to iOS on the smart phone.  And the same reasons that made Android attractive to smart phone manufacturers will make it just as attractive to tablet manufacturers: it’s free and it’s easy to customize.  And Google, unlike HP with webOS, has the will and the resources to keep pushing for that marketshare along with a dedicated Android user base.

Vertical integration is still a big advantage in Apple’s corner, but with Amazon posed to release it’s own tablet by October that edge will be seriously diminished as well.  And Amazon will take any marketshare it can get – unlike Apple, it will be happy to open it’s online store to any other Android tablet manufacturer.  Once a big player can vertically integrate multimedia access across any Android platform, Apple’s iTunes advantage vanishes for anyone not already locked into it or those wanting to free their information.

So yes, the tablet market belongs to Apple.  But not for ever, and definitely not for much longer.

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