What happens to the iPad if nobody else’s tablets are any good?

October 1, 2010
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The Guardian’s Charles Arthur poses the question on everyone’s mind, especially RIM shareholders. What does happen if everyone else’s tablets are crap?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “What happens to the iPad if nobody else’s tablets are any good?” was written by Charles Arthur, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st October 2010 11.58 UTC

It’s hard to open your email, or a web page, at the moment without stumbling across some mention of tablets – often, the iPad. Spammers trying to lure you to give away personal details by offering "free iPads!" Online, designers discuss the "iPad-ification" of web pages, making them more accessible to people who might be navigating the site using touch, rather than a mouse. "Already we’re seeing more and more people at airports, coffee shops and on the train using their iPads to read books, browse the web and watch video," comments the writer at that Mashable link.

And, of course, the tablet announcements are coming thick and fast: even before the iPad was in peoples’ hands, there was the JooJoo (formerly the CrunchPad, to be designed together with TechCrunch; but that all fell apart, though we’ve seen no sign of the threatened litigation by Michael Arrington). Then there was the Samsung Galaxy Tab; the Viewsonic (not yet seen in the wild); the Toshiba (ditto); the perhaps-it’s-real HP tablet running Windows 7; and most recently the RIM PlayBook.

One thing about all those, apart from the iPad: not seen in the wild. Even the Galaxy Tab hasn’t quite hit the shops, as the mobile networks are figuring out how much to charge for it and on what plans. Even the breathless PR announcement that dropped into my inbox this morning, saying that it will be "in UK shops" from 1 November, was notable for the complete absence of prices. (And as for hands-on, Tim Bray doesn’t count as "in the wild". As he said himself, the one he’s been using is a "not quite production" model.)

(Update: Tim Bray gets in touch to say that the Tab *is* real, and his model is a production model.)

Even the PlayBook, which RIM says will be in the hands of (a few, selected) enterprises in October, has drawn some doubters: as computer sciences student Justice Gödel Conder points out, can you actually see the finished, physical item in this YouTube video?

No:

"There is no evidence that the PlayBook exists as advertised. Why do I say this? I will make it brief. There is not a single frame in the BlackBerry PlayBook commercial that shows the actual device! The only thing being seen in the commercial is [computer-generated] special effects. Don’t believe me? Watch the ad again. Sure, those special effects are amazingly fast and responsive and cool but where is the device?"

And, he points out,

"Remember the ads for the BlackBerry Torch? They were entirely done with special effects too. The Torch seemed so fast and cool in those ads. The only problem is the actual real phone didn’t operate nearly as good as it did in the CG ads. The BlackBerry Torch ads are awesome but the phone is crap. Take note."

He also points out that the device shown on stage at RIM’s launch was never actually used: nobody touched the screen: "I can’t help but wonder if he’s just holding a dummy (plastic) device." And nobody has been able to lay hands on one. "What did the atttendees of the PlayBook announcement get? A device encased in glass playing videos. The new OS isn’t shown once, just a repeating video ad. Why not let everybody test out that amazing screen and new OS?" It could be, he suggests, just a dumb LCD screen: "Is there a single shred of evidence to say otherwise?"

And of course RIM doesn’t have a stellar track record with touch devices: there was the Storm touchscreen phone (more of a squall; I hated it, Stephen Fry hated it, David Pogue hated it) and the Torch, which hasn’t exactly set the world alight.

So there we have lots of tablets that have been announced, but are definitely not in the shops where you can poke and play with them. Perhaps they will be by Christmas.

But I’ve begun wondering about a bigger question. Given the number of companies that are announcing tablets, one of two things will happen: the market will absolutely explode, and everyone and their dog will have a tablet in a couple of years, rather like digital music players (think: iPods) a few years ago; or it will be another brief flurry, rather like netbooks are turning into, which will in turn mean swathes of red ink.

I suspect that for Apple to do well out of iPads, it actually needs those competitors to do well too. There’s nothing worse for a company than to try to create a market, only to find yourself the only one in it. Amazon had plenty of competition for the Kindle, which validated it efforts; it is already emerging as the dominant force in the dedicated e-reader market (despite Sony’s best efforts with the E-reader).

With tablets, if everyone decides that all the competition is rubbish, Apple will be left alone, standing in the middle of a blasted heath, master of all its surveys … which won’t be much. Palm had a similar experience in the handheld PDA market: once Psion fell by the wayside (and decided to focus on its Symbian operating system instead), there wasn’t much else – and although people did look at them, the functions that Palms could do were quickly sucked into mobile phones.

That then necessitated Palm’s move into mobile phones, through its complicated merger-and-split with Handspring – where for a period the OS and the hardware makers were separated, which worked about as well as arsenic poisoning for both sides.

What Apple actually needs is something to compare itself against. The fact that it never went into netbooks, even while all the experts and analysts were suggesting it should (my own position – in favour in February 2009, against in January 2010 – altered with time) indicates that it’s picky about the markets it goes after. Although you could figure that out already: this is why you never hear about Apple’s enterprise database offering, CRM offering, or until recently, by its social network. (And actually we’re still not really troubled – as in taking any trouble to do much with – the latter.)

Tablets, though … before Apple came along they were a tiny market: analysts estimates put sales at a few million per year at best. (This is defining a "tablet" as something with a screen larger than 5in; analysts love to demarcate, in a way that consumers don’t.) And most of that is in what you could call "blue-collar enterprise" markets: very much for the shop or factory floor (though with a few in hospitals).

Apple is thus already the biggest player in the market. The question, which all these wannabes don’t answer – because we can’t get our hands on them yet – is whether people will be tempted to follow iPad buyers into the tablet market.

It looks as though we’ll have to come back in a year’s time – even 18 months – to find out the answer. My own feeling? This is going to turn into an iPod-like rout of rivals if they don’t do something better than the 7"in models on offer. (Why are they 7in? I’ve heard, but despite searching the Android documentation haven’t been able to find confirmation anywhere, that that’s the maximum size that Android allows; if anyone can point me to proof positive that would be useful.) Possibly the arrival of the Chrome OS, which definitely will support larger screens, will help.

All they need then is some really good software. Oh, and physical hardware would help too.

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