When the iPad was launched, there was a widespread view (and I shared it) that soon, and not more than a year or two later, there would be some highly competitive and lower-priced tablet alternatives for customers to choose from. The iPad had opened a new hardware category, but competitors would quickly crowd into this new opening… there would be lots of choice and most of it would not be for Apple hardware.

Whilst dissecting a review of one of the best Android competitor’s to the iPad, Marco Ament notes:

Translation: Android tablets have managed to copy the iPad’s hardware well enough — the easy part — but have failed to provide good software and significant third-party app choice — the hard part. The Android Tablet Problem

For any ‘head-to-head’ competitor tablet to get into the market for a face off with the iPad there is the possibly insuperable problem that the new tablet lacks a coherent body of developers and of tablet-primed media. Apple has been building its iOS developer community and media resources for four years (arguably more). Apple has huge momentum and capability behind its iOS platform and this cannot be matched by any competitor. I don’t think that a ‘head to head’ competitor to the iPad can emerge in the next five years. The competitive threat if it comes, will be from a completely new approach, an external threat not a mid-size device like the iPad. We should look to a paradigm shift as radical and disruptive as the iPhone/iPad surge that Apple has produced to disrupt the mobile phone and the laptop computer.

Harry McCracken reviews the state of iPad competition and concludes that it is very hard to see why anybody in the market for a tablet would buy something other than an iPad 2.

And yet no Apple competitor has started selling anything that clearly answers a fundamental question: “Why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?” Sure, it’s easy to point at specific things that other devices do better (or at least differently) than the iPad, and some of the people reading this article can explain why they chose another tablet and don’t regret the move. (If you’re one of them, please do!) Still, sales figures for tablets show that when consumers compare the iPad to other choices, an overwhelming percentage conclude that the iPad is the best option. .…Instead of an iPad (Technologizer)

If the ‘competitors’ to the iPad cannot emerge now, a year after the first iPad was launched, why should it be feasible that the direct competition will be stronger in a year or two’s time? The iPad eco-system is getting richer and stronger at an amazing rate and that is the problem any direct tablet competitor faces. The fundamental point about the iPad and the iOS range of devices is that Apple is not really selling a hardware solution; Apple is offering a software and services solution, and it is the whole package that customers are buying into. This is something which no competitor to Apple is plausibly positioned to challenge. Not Microsoft (they don’t really do manufacturing), not Google (they don’t truly understand selling), not Amazon (who are best placed to have a shot at it, but do not have deep consumer-device engineering DNA).

We will come back to Amazon in a minute. But first let us consider what are the consequences of Apple owning the tablet category for the next three, four years — by which I mean that Apple has a good chance of being the supplier of most of the tablets bought for the plan-able future.

  1. Apple will sell a lot of iPads and will certainly offer a modicum more choice (high-end, low-end, high-res, medium res). Moore’s law says that Apple should be able to produce a sub $200 iPad for Christmas 2012. Apple will do that.
  2. The degree of device choice will be constrained by the requirement that as many apps as possible should run across all iOS devices. So no new aspect ratio, but quad pixel density. The coherence and interoperability of the range of iOS devices is already another source of lock-in. That gets stronger as the differentiation within the range is gently increased.
  3. The lead that Apple has in the deployment of apps for tablets will grow. Enormously, and become even more of an obstacle to ‘internal’ disruption from iPad-like competitors.
  4. Android, or maybe Windows, phones may well provide very strong competition at the ‘low end’, at the small format end of the market. There will be plenty of apps for non-Apple phones. These non-Apple phones will also be well-placed to produce competitive applications which are not tablet-sized and which do not necessarily require the full range of touch interface.
  5. Apple’s competitors will increasingly throw their weight behind web standards and ‘open’ technologies.

Amazon already has the Kindle platform and has sufficient strength in books, music, film and periodicals to mount a competitive challenge to Apple with its likely Android tablet — they need to launch it soon or Apple will own the holiday season device market in 2011. Amazon may be able to launch a somewhat credible Kindroid alternative to the iPad, but I think Apple has played a very clever move here in the last couple of weeks. It relaxed its e-commerce terms so that the soft Kindle can stay on the iPad/iTunes platform. This might have looked like a concession to Amazon (and to the millions of iPad owners who run the Kindle app on their iPad) but it was in fact an astute and decisive blow to the hardware side of Amazon’s business. Not having your Kindle library on the iPad would have been a decisive reason for many Amazon customers to switch to the Android tablet that will soon be launched by Jeff Bezos. Now there is no compelling reason to buy the Kindroid, no reason not to buy the iPad which will hold your library. Apple will not be getting 30% from the sale of Amazon ebooks, but those books can be used on iOS and Apple’s selection of music, film and apps is so much better than Amazon will be able to offer on the Kindroid. Apple will not be letting Amazon deploy film or music apps within iTunes either. So who has the upper hand in that trade? Apple never actually applied the e-commerce rules that it has just relaxed (they were meant to come in force at the end of this month). Perhaps they were told by lawyers that the proposals would attract monopolies sanctions, but rescinding/withdrawing them now was a stroke of genius and a sign of confidence. When push comes to shove, Apple owns the tablet space and there is not a lot that Amazon or anybody else can do about that.