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The Coming Tablet Wars: The Contenders

The early success of the iPad, and the hype surrounding its introduction may have given the impression that Apple will once again dominate this product category the way they did MP3 players with the iPod. While this may yet be the case, there will be real competition this time, making the future of this product category much more interesting. If we understand the iPad as more than hardware, we can see what Apple has done, and what others are up against.

Taking a look back to the Blackberry and iPod is useful in understanding the tablet environment. With the Blackberry, RIM showed early on that hardware was only the start of the story. It was the integration of the device, its operating system, and software that created such a useful device for its intended users. By running Blackberry email through their own servers, they added a continuous revenue source. With the iPod, Apple took an established piece of hardware, the MP3 player, and gave the user a superior software experience. Then they created a model to produce revenue with the iTunes store and their desktop software. The device itself was only the beginning, content became at least as important.

The iPhone took the iTunes model of selling content and brought it from music to computer software. But software developers need tools to create products, and Apple provided that, and the App Store gave independent developers and Apple the opportunity to share revenue. Apple was not the only one to understand this time. Before the iPhone was introduced, Google purchased Android in 2005 to give them an operating system and software development platform for mobile devices. And Palm had the right idea with webOS and the Pre, but could not execute their plan.

The iPad puts it all together in a tablet, using the established foundation. Apple added some of their own applications, bought a company that made low power ARM based microprocessors, and created a compelling package. They did a great job once again. We can complain about a few things (closed platform, Flash support etc) but in general it is a winning design.

Who can compete with the iPad?
No shortage of hardware companies that can build tablets, from Lenovo to ASUS to Acer to Fujitsu. Some of these have actually built Windows based tablets for primarily vertical market use. But there is very little to differentiate tablets running Windows, so it is no different from the PC business of selling boxes.

Google has been very successful with Android. Although they have a hardware product of their own (Nexus One), most Android devices are produced by other companies. Android now has a large catalog of Apps, a store, and a development environment. It is an open platform compared to Apple’s, and has a lot of momentum among software developers. Android will be running on tablets from multiple manufacturers. This is more like the Microsoft model, with the revenue of applications added.

HP until a few months ago was showing prototype Windows tablets, including one displayed by the Microsoft CEO at the consumer electronics show in January. But they have been paying attention to realize that it was worth over a billion dollars to buy Palm. Now they have their own modern operating system designed for mobile devices, that can run on phones and tablets. And they have the development tools and a store to sell Apps. All the pieces in place.

Nokia has been neglected by some, but they have been putting the pieces together, and it looks like they have a plan. They have a lot of experience building mobile devices, and have had their own operating system, Symbian, under continuous development. They are also, along with Intel, developing a Linux based operating system that can be used for tablets known as Meego. And in 2008 they bought a company named Trolltech that makes a software development tool, Qt. Nokia has modified Qt so the same applications can be developed for phones and mobile computers. And Intel has a new generation of low power Atom chips that will be supported by Meego.

Two companies in the smartphone business have not made the list, as you have noticed. RIM is still struggling with touch screen interface and will only have a modern browser in their next major OS release. They are a great company, so we will be watching. And of course, we wonder about Microsoft. When it comes to mobile devices we have been wondering about Microsoft for too long.

Categories: Tablets
  1. Computer Maven
    June 2, 2010 at 3:55 am

    Yes -The contenders mention are valid. While Palm owned the category they lost focus on their customers needs. Both Google and Nokia have the technology and the advertising clout to go after Apple. May the best man /App / Service provider win!!!

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