The iPad will soon face a tsunami of competing tablets. Get ready for mass confusion in formats and feature sets.
It's no secret that Apple
enjoys an unprecedented lead in the touch tablet market. The last major accounting put Apple at an incredible 95% market share.
Until the iPad's first real competitor, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which shipped late in the year, Apple pretty much had 2010 all to itself. Next year will be different.
In fact, the tablet market is about to get very crowded and very weird.
It all starts January 6. On that day, CES 2011 begins. The show will be a tablet-fest unlike anything we've ever seen.
The generally expected outcome for the market is that the coming flood of tablets will usher in a new range of choice for tablet buyers, and Apple will be forced to share the market with competitors who offer pretty much the same functionality at a lower price, or more and better features at pretty much the same price.
The market should settle, with Apple's share declining to a low, two-digit number with the "open" and cheaper alternatives, especially Google Android devices, taking the lion's share.
I don't think that's going to happen. I believe Apple will remain the dominant player indefinitely. Apple's incredible lead, plus unexpected craziness in the rest of the market will favor Apple in the mind of consumers.
Here's what I'm talking about.
The Tablet Tsunami
The New York Times
this week reported
that, according to anonymous sources, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is planning to announce several iPad competitors made by Samsung, Dell and others.
The Samsung device, called Gloria, will be about the same size as an iPad, but thicker and with a slide-out physical keyboard. It will run Windows 7 with a special "layered interface" that will appear when the keyboard is hidden.
Even more interesting, another Times source said Ballmer might also show Windows 8 devices, including a tablet.
As I've said before ship a tablet OS based on the Windows Phone 7 platform . The only question is: When? If they can't or choose not to do it soon, they could be hopelessly cut out of the mobile tablet market, which is shaping up to be the future of computing.
The best guess for Windows-based tablets is that next year, tablets will ship running Windows 7, possibly Windows 8 and probably Windows Phone 7.
The Microsoft-based tablets are just the beginning. RIM may be planning to ship its Blackberry PlayBook tablet as early as February.
Motorola is rumored to be working on a touch-tablet called Stingray that will run the upcoming 3.0 "Honeycomb" version of Google Android.
Creative is working on an Android tablet called the Creative Ziio, which will feature its own ZiiStore app store. We're probably going to see a lot of spin-off stores like this from both device makers and from carriers.
Another plausible-but-unconfirmed report has HP shipping in March a new touch tablet based on the webOS platform. If you recall, webOS is the operating system that runs the multi-touch Palm Pre phone, which HP acquired when it bought Palm.
Acer is working on both 7-inch and 10-inch Windows and Android tablets, which are expected in the spring.
China's top PC maker, Lenovo, announced this week that the company would announce a new LePad tablet within the coming weeks.
And a host of companies less familiar to consumers are also expected to ship tablets in the first half of next year, companies like Notion Ink, ViewSonic, MSI and others, plus a potentially enormous number of budget-focused Chinese companies.
When the Going Gets Weird
Market watchers are increasingly coming to terms
with the impact of touch tablets on the netbook and notebook market. Goldman Sachs predicts that Apple will sell 37.2 million iPads
by the end of the year, replacing one-third of PCs and tripling Apple's PC market share (assuming that iPads are "PCs").
One report out of Taiwan predicts that tablets may displace up to 40% of the netbook market. And it also appears that tablets are preventing some consumers from buying netbooks and notebooks, even if they haven't decided to buy a tablet yet.
More interesting than the rational replacement of clam-shell devices for slates, we're also seeing irrational consumer behavior. Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn said during an earnings call this week that the iPad is hurting PC sales not only by serving as an alternative, but also creating uncertainty in the market. Dunn said: "More overall customers migrating to tablets, and customers waiting, as they consider their purchase decisions on tablets versus netbooks and notebooks."
It gets weirder: eBooks may be evolving into touch tablets. Barnes and Nobles Nook Color, which is supposedly an eBook reader that competes with the Amazon Kindle, is slated to get an Android upgrade, which created speculation that it would be able to run apps and, essentially, double as an Android tablet. The company says no, but eBook readers are clearly evolving in that direction.
In fact, a great blurring is starting to occur between mobile device categories. Today, it's generally clear what's a smartphone, tablet, netbook, notebook and eBook reader. By this time next year: not so much.
We'll have big smartphones, tiny tablets, devices that function as netbooks, notebooks and touch tablets, eBook readers that run apps, and tablets optimized for eBook reading, laptops with two touch screens and even full-sized desktops oriented horizontally for use as giant iPads.
There are unanswerable questions. Is a clamshell device with an on-screen keyboard on the bottom half a laptop or a tablet? Is a 17-inch tablet a mobile device? Is a smart phone with a 6-inch screen a phone or a tablet?
Consumers will be confused by complexity. Tablets will be available running Windows 7, possibly Windows 8, probably Windows Phone 7, multiple versions of Android, webOS, Linux, MeeGo, the Blackberry OS and, of course, Apple's iOS.
Platforms will vary wildly in the quality of their app stores. On Android, some devices will use the central store, others will favor stores created by the device makers.
Some will be touch. Others will be pen. Some will be both. Some tablets will replace desktop PCs. Others will replace smart phones. There will be no clear lines separating phones, eBook readers, touch tablets, pen tablets, netbooks, laptops and even desktops.
Gadget geeks like you and me are comfortable with this kind of complexity and this range of choice. But everyday consumers, upon whom tablet superstardom depends, freeze. Buying a tablet will become a very difficult homework assignment. Brand names will blur together. Consumers will struggle to understand the arcane and subtle differences between platforms, feature sets, app stores, connectivity options and document compatibility.
All this complexity will favor Apple. The reason is that Apple will become viewed as the safe, reliable system that doesn't require a lot of thought, risk or learning. Consumers will know they have a huge app store and plenty of apps, a mature 2.0 tablet platform and plenty of cool peripheral devices and accessories.
What's interesting about next year's tablet tsunami is that dozens of companies -- maybe even hundreds if you count the many Chinese brands -- will ship 1.0 tablets by summer. But Apple will probably ship the iPad 2.0.
Even when the market is deluged by devices, Apple will still stand apart in the minds of consumers.
I could be wrong. The tsunami could bury Apple's iPad. But I think it won't. I think that for the next few years, Apple will continue to dominate the tablet market.
But even if it doesn't, the now-quiet, easy-to-understand tablet market is about to get very, very weird. It's going to be an interesting year.