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Insanely Late

The iPad rivals that are about to flood the market probably have to approach perfection if they are to stand a chance.
October 27, 2010

It’s hard to believe now, but much of the tech world was once convinced that the iPad would flop. The carping began even as Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the device on stage in San Francisco in January. Why did Jobs fail to put a camera on the tablet? How did he expect anyone to surf the Web without Adobe Flash? And what, really, was the purpose of this thing–wasn’t it just a big iPod Touch, another iPhone without a phone? Given Apple’s determination to control everything people would do on the tablet, the iPad seemed out of step with the history of computing. Here was a machine that was meant only for consuming media, not creating new things. Would anyone go for something so narrowly focused, a computer that was so obviously crimped?

In retrospect, the cognoscenti’s case against the iPad–that it was too limited, that it cost a lot more than a netbook yet didn’t do nearly as much–was woefully off the mark. Apple sold three million iPads in the first 80 days, and Rhoda Alexander, an analyst at iSuppli, predicts that nearly 13 million will be sold by the end of this year. The numbers suggest the wisdom of the limits Apple imposed on the device. It’s true that the iPad doesn’t do as much as a normal computer, even a cheap laptop. What many in tech circles didn’t get, though, was that people wanted a machine that did less. The iPad’s restrictions turned out to be its main selling point: the iPad doesn’t do everything a computer can do, but what it does do, it does better or more simply.

It would be wise to keep Apple’s tablet strategy in mind as we greet the dozens of iPad rivals that will hit the market over the next year. Some are being pushed by established device makers–Dell, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, Research in Motion, Lenovo, Asus, and others have announced that they are working on tablets or are rumored to be–while a great many will come from startups and such new players in the consumer electronics business as Cisco Systems. When consumers finally do get a dizzying choice of iPad rivals with expanded features, will the iPad’s limitations do it in? Probably not. According to iSuppli, Apple will control about 62 percent of the tablet market in 2012. And that’s the optimistic scenario for other makers. Rivals looking to make a killing on tablets should face up to a much bleaker possibility–that the iPad will be as dominant as the iPod, which accounts for three-quarters of all portable music players sold in the United States.

To understand why, first consider Apple’s unique approach to the tablet. At the Comdex computer expo in 2001, Bill Gates famously predicted that within five years, tablet PCs would become the most popular computers on the market. His vision was based on the Windows operating system, of course; his tablet ran a full-featured version of Windows that was meant to be controlled with a stylus. Not only did this make for an unpleasant interface–Windows was designed for the precision of a mouse, and a stylus felt like a clunky afterthought–but it also misread what people might want in this kind of device. In Gates’s view, a tablet would be a full-­featured machine. He told the Comdex crowd that he was using one as his “everyday computer.” That’s where he was wrong–and where Jobs saw an opportunity that the rest of the industry had missed. Apple’s genius was in recognizing that not many people are like Bill Gates. We don’t want to use a tablet as our primary computer. Instead, a tablet is a convenience device, just one more machine with which to check e-mail and browse the Web. In this light, the iPad’s “limitations” make perfect sense; indeed, it’s precisely what Apple omitted that makes the iPad the iPad. Apple realized that a device whose explicit purpose is consumption and convenience–a device marketed for sharing photos, watching movies, flipping through magazines, and reading books–didn’t need to be larded with all the extras that techies claimed a successful tablet would need. The lack of Flash is a perfect example. Jobs has complained that Flash would gulp the iPad’s battery power and hasn’t been optimized for touch-screen devices. Equipping the iPad to run Flash could have added a hassle factor that turned the tablet into something much more like a desktop or laptop computer.

Things Reviewed

  • Apple's iPad

  • Tablet computers coming from other companies

Apple’s decision to use iOS, the operating system designed for the iPhone, was another good call. Sure, iOS doesn’t offer as many features as Windows or Mac OS X; among many other things, it insists that all programs take up the entire screen, and it offers a limited capacity for multitasking. Yet rather than dooming the iPad, these restrictions immediately defined its place in a household of computers: as a convenience device, it offered less than a desktop but more than a phone. What’s more, Apple didn’t simply port the iPhone’s OS into a larger gadget. It incorporated several new design elements meant specifically for a bigger screen–for instance, new “popover” and “split view” dialog boxes that let sophisticated applications offer choices to users. Apple also invited app developers to create programs specifically for the iPad, nurturing a thriving ecosystem of games and media applications.

The iPad’s rivals won’t have such an interface or ecosystem anytime soon. Most of Apple’s competitors are eyeing one of two main operating systems for their devices: Windows 7 or Android, Google’s mobile OS. (HP, which purchased Palm this year, is surely working on a tablet that runs Palm’s webOS.) Let’s dismiss any possibility that Windows can win significant gains on tablets; though Microsoft has added some touch-based capabilities to the operating system, it is still mainly conceived as an OS for a mouse rather than fingers. That leaves Android. It has become a strong competitor to the iPhone over the last year, with increased market share and ever more interest from software developers. Android is also quite customizable, making it a natural choice for manufacturers looking to enter the tablet market quickly.

But as it’s currently conceived, Android faces a key hurdle in this market. Google hasn’t offered any specific improvements to the user interface that would make Android more suitable for tablets, as Apple did with the iOS on the iPad. Instead, the task of making the standard Android components work perfectly on a larger screen is being left to manufacturers. As was true in the phone market, some manufacturers will be better at customizing Android than others–leading to a diversity of Android-based tablet designs and a range of user experiences. Having to hunt for the best Android tablet in a forest of subpar devices is likely to annoy some potential customers, while the iPad will be an easy choice–the only tablet sold at the Apple Store.

Another tack for iPad rivals will be to try to fill the most obvious gaps in Apple’s device. For instance, many plan to add two cameras (one on the front and one on the back) for easy videoconferencing, and they can tout their tablets’ ability to run Flash. More generally, rivals will probably claim to be more “open” than the iPad. An Android tablet might run your choice of Web browser, say, or connect to a Windows computer and play a wide variety of video files from its hard drive–things iPad users couldn’t dream of doing. There is also the issue of price. Apple’s profit margins tend to be high, and rivals will have room to undercut the $499 it charges for the entry-level iPad. They will team with wireless carriers to offer subsidized versions of their tablets: you’d get the device for $200 or $300 if you signed up for a data plan.

But the iPad’s very success suggests the precariousness of this more-for-less strategy. The millions of people who’ve snapped up the iPad clearly haven’t been bothered by its omissions. Are there really that many more customers who are holding out for tablets that include all the bells and whistles Apple’s rivals plan to add? Even if we assume, generously, that there is a market for tablets with extra features, it remains unclear how rivals will build such devices without sacrificing the iPad’s greatest feature–killer usability. Creating a tablet that does more than the iPad but is still a pleasure to use will require careful thought, not to mention a lot of time and money. Given the iPad’s momentum, Apple’s rivals don’t have much time–and if competitors plan to undercut the iPad on price, they might not have much money to devote to the project either.

In other words, Apple has boxed its rivals into a corner–just as it did in the market for music players, with its easy-to-use combination of hardware and software. Lots of MP3 players and smart phones can do more than the iPod and the iPhone, and there will soon be lots of other tablets that can do more than the iPad. But in the modern gadget market–a market that Apple has created–selling devices that do “more” isn’t good enough. It’s doing things better that counts. And it’s here that the iPad may have won the race before it even got started.

Farhad Manjoo is the technology columnist at Slate and contributes regularly to Fast Company and the New York Times. He is the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (Wiley, 2008).

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