So in recent days, I've read one or two favorable reviews of the $799 Motorola Xoom tablet computer, a highly-touted iPad competitor. The TV ads seem flashy enough, and, based on specs alone, I've little doubt it is one powerhouse of a gadget. But are specs everything?
Certainly the arrival of the iPad last year upended the PC industry in a totally expected way. Apple reported over 15 million units sold in the first three quarters, but the impact has been far greater than that. The growing move towards cheap notebooks, as exemplified by netbooks, was thrown for a loop. Overall PC sales estimates from industry analysts kept getting lower and lower, and Apple was one of the few companies to report rapid sales growth, for both notebook and desktop Macs.
If there is any cannibalization wrought by the iPad, it appears to be mostly at the expense of Windows-based PCs of one sort or another. Maybe Macs have been impacted to some degree, but not enough to prevent sales from improving at a pretty good clip.
The tablet revolution does make sense. You can get many of the functions of a traditional PC in an extremely compact form factor with great performance and extremely good battery life. Many people who might have formerly invested in a notebook computer, as the second or third PC in their homes or offices, find the iPad a superior alternative for most purposes.
Certainly, the iPad's limitations are obvious. If you want to do lots of typing, get a keyboard. Doing it on a touchpad with no physical feedback is not a way to make lots and lots of words flow. Yet the iPad's 9.7-inch screen is actually larger than some of the early Mac notebooks. There are loads of cases that let you stand the unit up vertically, so you can conveniently work on an accessory keyboard if that's what you prefer. I wonder if a future iteration of the iPad, with slide-out keyboard, is a potential solution, unless most of us decide to use dictation software instead of letting our fingers do the walking.
Even ahead of the announcement of the iPad 2, the first version became a cultural icon. You'd see it regularly in movies and TV shows, and more and more businesses have found ways to deploy them. Certainly the iPad is a huge plus in the educational world, but textbook publishers have not yet been lining up to make deals with Apple. But I do expect that the iPad (whether the 2, 3, or later) will ultimately replace most physical textbooks in a student's backpack. The Kindle may make a few strides right now, because it's cheaper and lighter. But you give up far too many functions, such as the ability to write homework assignments on the same computer. Perhaps Amazon will add more tablet-like functionality in future versions, but the iPad is expected to remain far, far more flexible.
Now if you believe some of the media pundits, the avalanche of tablets — iPad competitors — is just beginning. Over the next year, loads of them will appear at your favorite consumer electronics outlets or online. But to get a leg up on Apple, these latecomers are going to have to devise the correct combination of good design, favorable pricing, and build an app ecosystem that'll make these gadgets indispensable.
It's curious, of course, that nobody figured out how to build a successful tablet until Apple led the way with the first iPad. Sure, the critics pronounced it little more than a swollen iPod touch, but customers knew better. But it also explains why the new generation of tablets are fundamentally iPad knockoffs. Sure, some have a few extra features, because consumer electronics companies use bullet point presentations rather than innovation. So if the iPad or iPad 2 lacks something, they need to find a way to add it, even if it's poorly implemented.
Certainly, Samsung and Motorola could boast of having cameras ahead of the iPad 2. But that advantage ends on March 11. Besides, consumers don't buy these things based on raw specs. They want a gadget that works, and seamlessly performs the functions they require. That means having enough apps available to actually do something beyond checking email, or surfing the Internet.
Apple's home-grown advantage has to be extremely difficult to beat. Yes, I gather some developers prefer the more open environment at Google, and certainly customers might also prefer the fewest restrictions possible. But the real issue is whether there's a rich selection of apps customized for tablets. For now, nobody else can match the 65,000 titles in the App Store. But to attract and keep developers, a company's storefront has to provide a means to make good profits. If developers can't make a living from the retail products they create, they'll simply go elsewhere.
Is the Android Marketplace a profit center? That's yet to be determined, but when you hear about instant millionaires as the result of App Store and Mac App Store sales, you know more and more developers will be attracted. The customers will benefit from a smooth, relatively seamless environment, and few are apt to fret about the fact that there's a gatekeeper lurking in the background.
Some day, the iPad — or a better product if one comes from Apple or elsewhere — will be the mainstream personal computer. Apple knows that, and Steve Jobs has said so. The rest of the PC industry desperately hopes and prays for a piece of the action, but you wonder whether, for them at least, it's too little and too late.
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