Apple's iPad is into its second iteration while most of its supposed rivals have yet to appear. So can they really take market share from Apple? Seb Janacek doubts it.
Never has an industry been so obsessed with market share than technology. Perhaps it's something in the geek psyche that it needs to dominate to be named victor.
Nothing is so concerned with quantity than the mindset that market share is the be-all and end-all of everything. We had the browser wars, the OS wars, the smartphone wars and now we have the tablet wars. In this industry, it's as if everything is a game of Command and Conquer or Risk.
Perhaps it's the obsession with chip clock speeds and Moore's Law, tonnes of RAM and storage, data transfer speeds and the 'size is everything' principle. Bigger, faster, better?
The industry, its products and marketing live largely in a quantitative world. Apple has greater focus on the qualitative one. Earlier this month, Android's smartphone share of the market swept past the iPhone, leaving one tech website to claim breathlessly that Apple's device was "dead in the water".
Earlier this week, Gartner analysts predicted that while the iPad will still be dominant in five years' time, competitors will gradually erode its share.
Gartner said iOS accounted for 83.9 per cent of the media tablet market last year and forecast Apple's OS will take two-thirds, 68.7 per cent, of the market this year, dropping slightly to 63.2 per cent in 2012 and then just under half, 47.1 per cent, in 2015.
This prediction ignores two things. First, whether this scenario will come to pass and, secondly, whether this matters much to Apple.
Pretenders to the iPad's crown
Looking at the gallery of pretenders to the iPad's crown, most are not even on the market, yet Apple's device has already moved on to its second iteration. It is assumed that the competitors will arrive and cut into the iPad's share. I'm not so sure.
The iPhone is in a highly competitive market, with Google and RIM both forces to be reckoned with. Yet take a look at the iPod. It completely dominated its market for 10 years, and still does. Is it right to assume that the iPad's competitors will waltz?
In the last week we've seen a slew of terrible reviews for the RIM Playbook, already late to market. Then we had news that the Motorola Xoom, the showcase Android tablet, had not sold as many units as expected. The enemy is setting up camp outside the gates, still reading assembly instructions for siege engines.
What of the challengers? Google will undoubtedly emerge as a serious challenger to the iPad and become one of the dominant platforms. Yet Honeycomb, the first tablet-specific OS, has been delayed and is only just coming to market, and previous versions of Android on tablets were not designed for tablets but for smartphones.
Meanwhile, Google has recently changed the nature of its 'open' operating system to one requiring Google's approval for amendments before deployment, which may force some tablet manufacturers to rethink their strategy.
In addition, the company has also admitted that it is hard at work on a version of the Chrome OS for tablets, which may cause confusion for developers and device manufacturers.
Despite having two CEOs and three COOs to manage strategy and execution, RIM seems to be in a complete mess.
The company's vastly hyped PlayBook has just hit the market. If ever a product were marketed as the anti-iPad, it's the PlayBook. It has Flash. It has massive cameras, which don't matter very much at the moment because the videoconferencing software hasn't been written yet. Bewilderingly, it allows developers to create apps for it as QNX apps. And Android apps. And Flash. And Adobe Air. The product is a confusing mess.
PlayBook's native email and calendar issues
Stranger still, it lacks a native email, calendar or contacts client. Instead, the PlayBook needs to be tethered to a BlackBerry to be able to receive emails and calendars. Can you imagine the howls of derision if Apple had announced that the iPad gave you email and calendars - but only if you owned or bought an iPhone.
HP and Palm are the most interesting of the contenders and I look forward to seeing their tablet make the market. Will it be a success? The heart says yes but the head says no. Recent demonstrations of version 3.0 of the Palm-developed webOS look elegant and well conceived. Again, it has yet to launch.
Microsoft is nowhere and has little prospect of getting a ride out of town any time soon. The paralysis in Redmond is incredible.
In the phantasmal gallery of would-be tablet kings, perhaps we should consider another potential competitor - Amazon. The ecommerce giant is the latest company thought to be preparing a tablet computer. It already has the excellent Kindle e-reader but the web is awash with talk of a full-featured tablet device.
Amazon is similar to Apple in many ways in that it has a vast content ecosystem behind it, a premium consumer brand, a nascent app store and hundreds of millions of customers and their credit card accounts. In addition, it has recently launched its own app store on the Android platform.
Amazon, like Apple, has an opportunity to rise above the commoditisation of technology and open something that consumers can relate to more than technology specifications. The others compete on technology because technology is all they have, but technology is no longer enough.
Apple looks beyond technology fans
Apple is no longer interested in the legions of technology fans. It's after the rest of us. The people out there. Brands such as Apple and Amazon are well poised to exploit that market.
There's no doubting that market share is hugely important, and many companies and their fans consider it the barometer of success. I don't believe Apple falls into this category. It obviously would prefer as many customers as it can get but not at the expense of profit. That is the prime driver for Cupertino.
You could argue that the quality of its products, in terms of industrial design, software and content ecosystem, are as important as profit but these are merely the features of the products that generate the profit.
Many seem to lose sight of Apple's pursuit of profit either because they have an overly romanticised view of the company as battling corporate incumbents such as IBM, Intel and Microsoft or because its brand is so commonly associated with alternative and bohemian influences.
Irrespective of whether Amazon, Android or RIM is bigger in terms of tablet market share, the only thing that matters to Apple is profit derived from the iPad. Its competitors are trailing Apple on a number of fronts - market share is the least of their concerns. Right now, Apple is clearly enjoying the best of both worlds.
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