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The Threat of the iPad 2

On the surface, an iPad comes across as a pretty innocuous gadget. It’s just a rectangular object with a display, and buttons for volume and muting (or rotation lock if you prefer). It’s a blank slate in the best sense of the term, meaning it does nothing till its turned on and you start running apps on it.

Indeed, the media’s initial reaction to the iPad’s rollout last year was a collective yawn. How could this possibly be the killer tablet that would turn that failed market on its head? To all intents and purposes, it was just a swollen iPod touch; the original version didn’t even have a camera.

According to published reports, Apple CEO Steve Jobs had been shepherding development of the iPad for several years. Indeed, the iPhone essentially branched off from the iPad project, and surely the similarities are obvious. The flexibility afforded by the much larger display is the main differentiator when it comes to apps, along with the subtle differences in the iOS.

What makes the iPad special is the fact that Apple had already built a home-brewed ecosystem for it, consisting of loads of apps, easy syncing, and virtually seamless integration with a desktop Mac or PC. As developers quickly fleshed out the possibilities for the iPad, it became indispensable, not just for consumers, but a growing number of businesses. In fact, luxury car makers are beginning to put their humongous owner manuals on spanking new iPads. For once, customers might actually read them.

Until the iPad arrived, PC makers had a single, aging concept of a tablet computer. Just take a Windows PC portable, add a swiveling display whose surface can be controlled with a stylus, and you have the Microsoft vision of innovation. The uptake was slow and halting, and only a few specialized businesses, such as physician’s offices, bothered. Each year would be the “year of the tablet,” but it took Apple to devise a solution that actually worked.

If you look at most of the tablets being built by Apple’s competitors, they are clearly heavily influenced by the iPad. They don’t promise superior usability, or a decent selection of apps. Instead, the ads, often with science fiction overtones, tout processor power and other arcane measurements that may have little impact on how those gadgets really work. Perhaps it’s also a lame attempt at deflection. The Android OS has very few compelling apps amidst the clutter of ringtones and wallpaper backdrops. Aside from the basics, such as email and Web browsing, the number of apps tailored for Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the first version of Google’s OS designed with tablets in mind, is far lower.

The iPad 2 can be outfitted with the modules that make up Apple’s iWork, plus GarageBand, iMovie, and tens of thousands more. What can you do with a Motorola Xoom?

Worse, the competition can barely compete with the iPad 2’s aggressive pricing, although the RIM Playback will reportedly match them when it goes on sale. A forthcoming version of the Xoom will also closely match the retail price of a similar iPad 2. But that may be a fire sale, since the original Xoom is more expensive.

However, the iPad is a cultural icon. Few pay attention to the Xoom, for example, which is why there are published reports that production is being scaled down, and that a newer model may be coming in the near future. Talk about being stillborn. There’s no indication that any of the forthcoming competitors will fare differently.

This doesn’t mean I don’t want to see competition. A monopoly position can mean stagnation when it comes to innovation. Ask Microsoft. Sure, Apple keeps moving the envelope. But it’s clear that, despite the thinner and lighter form factor, the changes in the iPad 2 are largely incremental. Apple has no incentive to do any better, simply because nobody else can even approach the simplicity, elegance and flexibility of the iPad.

As I’ve said in the past, the best way to compete with a market leader is to build a better mousetrap. Yes, having a lower price helps, but Apple has already cornered the market on many of the critical components needed for a tablet computer. The impact of the tragedy in Japan is uncertain when it comes to the supply chain. Although Apple has no doubt attempted to compensate for possible component shortages, I can’t think the situation will help them as they attempt to ramp up the production lines.

The rest of the industry is going to have to confront an extremely difficult situation in attempting to build product, and keep the bill of materials reasonably low. As the iPad 2’s sales soar, the cost of building each unit will be reduced.

That leaves the iPad killer industry with a serious dilemma. Look at the history of the iPod, where Apple entered a market where sales were few, and fueled a revolution. The iPad may simply repeat that event all over again. The only way consumer electronics makers can cope would be to beat Apple at their own game. Make a markedly superior product, and keep the prices down. That doesn’t necessary mean a better iPad, but perhaps something altogether new that would make Apple’s gadgets seem old fashioned. I doubt that they’re up to the job.