Will iPad Dominate Tablets?

Digital Daily carries a report from Goldman Sachs forecasting continued Apple dominance of the tablet computer space.

It is easy to see why Goldman might think so, when you look at the current landscape. The RIM playbook will no doubt achieve some sales, but looks set to be a not-ready-for-prime-time disappointment. Existing Android tablets are clumsy and have little prospect of large-scale success; and Google is showing signs of strain in trying to apply their mobile-phone/Android model to tablets, holding back Android’s Honeycomb/tablet-version from full open-source release. Meanwhile, HP/Palm WebOS devices seem a long shot, to say the least.

There are two ways in ways in which the forming “Apple dominates” conventional wisdom might turn out to be false.

One is Android catching up. Android’s whole product strategy is not much more than “copy Apple’s product, use a different, advertising-supported, business model.” It may not excite much admiration, but it is working in mobile phones; could it work for tablets?

Tablets are harder. The range of tasks performed is richer and more complex than on a mobile device. The blocks of time users spend interacting with the device are longer. The challenge of making a user-experience that really coheres is deeper – it is like taking the complexity-management of a fully-fledged computer operating system, and the challenges of inventing a natural-feeling mobile device interface, and multiplying them. Also, the market structure is different – in cellphones, the wireless carriers have major influence, with substantial ability to help fragment the market between different device manufacturers, and well-established device-manufacturers to help them do it to Apple’s disadvantage; all that will be much less of a factor in tablets.

Yet, Android is well funded and determined – give them a year, or 18 months, and surely they have the chance to produce a coherent and effective tablet operating system that could attack Apple from the low-end. At least – they will certainly be able to, unless i) the Android team messes it up; or ii) Apple substantially raises the bar between now and then. After all, the iPad itself was widely criticized as “just a giant iPhone” on its release, and not without reason; producing a “a giant Android device” should not be beyond the Android team, given some time.

The other, second, way in which the dominance of Apple’s iPad could be undermined would be if someone introduces a radical, innovative, and better alternative. I suspect that this is more possible than most suspect. The iPad is good, but it is, in the end, just a product derived from the iPhone. How a tablet handles multi-tasking, and co-operation between multiple apps; how it handles media consumption; how it handles content production; and how it handles interactivity and participation – potentially, all of these things could be rethought for the tablet form factor (in fact, for both the 10″ and 7″ form factors).

Where could such a major innovation come from? Android’s copy-cat approach seems entrenched, so it hardly seems likely to be them, though I suppose it’s possible another group within Google might take a shot. Microsoft managed some genuine rethinking for Windows Phone 7, but have been struggling with execution beyond the first version – they might not have the stomach now for something so visionary.

Would it work for a startup? It would need to be formidably well funded. A “fork” of Android could be a place to start (just as MAC OSX used Linux as a place to start). It might need to support an existing corpus of apps – probably Android – to avoid lack of apps being an insurmountable barrier to initial adoption.

The amount of funding needed, and the amount of work needed to get to version-1 product, would put me off. Yet, the opportunity for innovation here is genuinely large. If we are in the “post PC” era, perhaps we need a post-PC-era-company to be founded and funded to really deliver the changes that tablets promise.

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