Has the iPad killed tablet innovation?

May 29, 2010
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How foolish I've been. Five months ago I wrote that tablets had come of age, and even sifted my way through the line-up cherry picking what must-have features would make for the perfect device. A month later, in the afterglow - or should that be aftermath? - of the iPad announcement, I marvelled that, while Apple's slate wouldn't necessarily satisfy every user, there was nonetheless plenty of choice on the horizon for those given a taste for tableteering. Our analyst contributors wisely told me not to count my touchscreen chickens before they'd hatched onto the market, but I wouldn't listen. I thought the iPad's arrival would rejuvenate the tablet segment, but all it seems to have done is killed off any attempt at innovation.

Since those naive, hopeful editorials, Microsoft have closed the book on Courier, HP's Slate appears to be in a no-man's land of ambiguity - not exactly helped by the company's extreme reluctance to put the record straight - and the Tegra 2 based slates that so impressed at CES and Mobile World Congress (Notion Ink's Adam, the ICD range) are yet to show up in stores. Now, Lenovo has pulled the plug on their IdeaPad U1 Hybrid, a distinctive little notebook with a detachable slate-style touchscreen that promised to bridge the divide between ultraportable laptop and sofa-surfing tablet. They're apparently insisting it was only ever a concept, seemingly forgetting it had been a "concept" with a predicted June release date, MRSP of $999 and a "coming soon" page (and all of which from out of Lenovo's own mouth).

Lenovo's attention, they say, is now turning to Android, just like so many other promised slates we've seen in the past six months. Google's open-source OS has plenty in its favour: low software cost, brand name recognition buoyed by surging smartphone adoption, the promise that its search giant backer isn't likely to disappear any time soon. The end result is an identikit parade of Android-based slabs; the tail-end of an economic downturn and an obvious route presented by that great arbiter of technology taste, Apple, was apparently all that was necessary to lead the rest of the market down a path that bypasses innovation and difference

Perhaps it's unfair to level the blame at Apple. For all their legendary reputation for innovation, their actual strength lies more, maybe, in the ability to create a device, market it as sufficiently different from the rest of the pack, and then lace the whole thing with so much hyperbole - "this is the amazing future of touchscreens" - that they later get credited with inventing (or at least reinventing) the whole segment. You can't really criticise them for wholeheartedly supporting their own product range, and we doubt their shareholders would do so either.

What rankles is that they so obviously took an easy route, albeit one clad in gorgeous materials. Where other firms have struggled with handwriting and speech recognition to alleviate tablet text-entry, Apple simply enlarged the on-screen keyboard. While Microsoft laboured to get a full OS running on a finger-centric device, Apple repurposed iPhone OS - even if that does resolutely confine the iPad to "companion device" status, rather than allowing it to exist as a product in its own right. Even the hardware, however beautiful, follows a simple pattern: an OS intended for a phone doesn't need a powerhouse processor; a relatively modest processor is power-frugal; a compact, frugal processor gives you plenty of space for a big battery and big runtimes. Of course they're going to say that the iPad is the best thing since sliced bread, and indeed the best approach for touchscreen computing in the days ahead. It's not just Apple that would like us to believe that they alone have The Right Idea for what consumers want. I woudn't even want to deny them that luxury; though I'm not 100-percent convinced by the iPad, it does some things very well.

It doesn't do everything very well, though, and the people it serves best are just one slice of the user-pie, not all of them. Five months ago that was fine: there were alternatives galore in the pipeline, and if you wanted to be more of a content-creator, say, than a content-consumer, the model that would best fit those needs had already been promised. Now, it seems that Apple's rivals have conceded that the tablet template has been set, and they've seized on Android to deliver it. That's notwithstanding Google's apparent reluctance to embrace the form-factor - at least, not before their own, internal timescales say the moment has come. Android Market availability on tablets is patchy at best, when it should be something you can take for granted, while the so-called Google Experience apps are similarly rationed out in a way consumers haven't been educated enough to understand. SlashGear has spoken to tablet manufacturers looking to bring Android-based devices to market, and several have told us that Google has been relatively unresponsive to either their input or their requests.

Is it any surprise that so many are now fixating on the idea of a webOS tablet, recognising that Palm's platform is - while less potent in terms of market share and brand recognition - something different from the current, anodyne status-quo? When you're attempting to differentiate your tablet by telling us it has a USB port, or a webcam, you should already know it's game-over. It's also no use racing to offer the cheapest slate; as we've seen from some of the reviews of so-called $100 tablets, the experience is at best PMP-like, and at worst enough to put any would-be tableteer off the concept for life (or maybe just send them scuttling to their nearest Apple store).

So far, Apple have successfully - as the early figures would suggest - extended their iPhone OS platform into an adjacent segment, while their craven rivals have given up on the idea of competition and instead seem more interested in mimicry. If I'm a fool, it's because I wanted to believe manufacturers could see beyond the end of this quarter's financial report, and through Steve Jobs' famed Reality Distortion Field. Ironically, consumers seem willing to accept the iPad model isn't the only way forward for touchscreen computing, where it seems manufacturers are all too willing to concede that it is.


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