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  • In Search of the iPad Killer

    September 17th, 2010

    The PC industry is in a tizzy in the wake of the unexpected success of the iPad. Where alleged tech industry analysts were talking of tablet sales of as little as five million for all of 2010, Apple moved 3.27 million units during the first three months. In each the next two quarters, sales may more than double that figure, as the iPad spreads into more countries and production levels improve.

    Estimated sales for 2011 are in the 28 million range. But there’s a huge caveat.

    You see, most of those experts insist that Apple’s sales are fated to flatten (maybe even decline) because there are iPad killers coming — eventually. Now when Apple blew away the portable media player market with the iPod, lots of competitors arrived from Day One. But few of them gained more than a few percent market share. Even though the market for such products has declined somewhat, Apple remains on top by a huge margin.

    With the iPad, there have been announcements of tablet-style PCs that supposedly emulate the iPad, but, for the most part, they appear stillborn. Manufacturers stage elaborate presentations boasting of the impending arrival of touch-based tablets as part of their latest and greatest product lines, but how many can you actually buy?

    The next version of the HP/Palm WebOS isn’t due until 2011, and it’s not at all certain of that OS can scale up to a larger screen. I suppose the same can be said about the Android OS, which is surely doing nicely in the smartphone space.

    Meantime, every single day you see TV ads for the iPad. The only thing to come from a competitor is Microsoft’s supremely lame Windows 7 ads, or one of their inscrutable Bing promotions that fail to define what they’re about; that is, unless you know Bing is a search engine that competes with Google.

    What’s worse is that most of the promised iPad killers also use the name “Pad” in their name, basically ceding to Apple the right to define a tablet computer as some sort of “Pad.” Indeed, when Apple first revealed that name, some suggested it didn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe an iSlate? But Apple has had great success with names that contain the letter “P,” such as the iPhone and the iPod.

    At least you have a sense of what they’re about, though I grant Pod doesn’t readily signify a digital media player based on the word’s usual definitions. Of course, if you hadn’t heard of RIM or BlackBerry, would you know the Torch is a smartphone? What about a Droid, any Droid? Would you realize that’s a play on the name Android (or Android OS), rather than some ugly robotic creature? Or a play on anything?

    Then again, how do you explain to a visitor from another world that a McIntosh is an apple, and also a consumer audio product, but a Macintosh is a personal computer? Assuming they don’t have words with similar murky definitions in their native tongue, they might regard Earthlings as mighty peculiar. Of course, they’d be right.

    But let’s move past the names and consider the sort of product the iPad represents, a 21st century version of the personal computer that has taken the consumer electronics world by storm. Even people who don’t normally ask about getting a PC — such as my loyal spouse, Barbara — have become intrigued by the possibilities of the iPad.

    These days, there’s also more and more talk that the iPad may be the savior of the newspaper industry. There are recent reports that publishers are talking with Apple about ways to establish subscription programs. And no wonder. Printed newspapers are on life support, and a profitable online business plan is still a pipe-dream. Besides, making a newspaper all electronic would save a tremendous amount of money in production expenses. Maybe the industry could use the savings to hire more skilled reporters; it’s not that I’d like to see the production and delivery people looking for work. Also imagine how many trees are going to be saved.

    On the other hand, I’m rather disappointed that the iPad hasn’t taken hold as a replacement for school textbooks. When Apple first announced the iPad, I expected agreements to be signed with the major publishers pretty quickly, and I even imagined that the fall 2010 school year would feature loads of students carrying their entire collection of books embedded in an iPad rather than heavy backpacks. Imagine doing all their homework on that singular device? With the forthcoming ability to print your documents in iOS 4.2, they’d even be able to hand in physical copies of their work rather than, say, email them, without having to return to a Mac or a PC.

    But the textbook capability remains a product of one’s imagination, since no such deals have been announced, or at least any that I recall. Well, maybe in 2011.

    But the tablet-based PC has become a rich market that Apple has largely assumed for itself not just by delivering a superb version 1.0 product, but also because the rest of the PC industry has remained strangely silent on releasing competing products.

    Is there a real iPad killer? I haven’t seen it, not even one that has the potential of becoming successful. Maybe there will be some before the holiday season, but I rather suspect that the real competition may not arrive until 2011. By then, it may just be too late for them!

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