Why It’s So Hard to Compete with the iPad

Mar 5, 2011
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With few surprises, techies were underwhelmed with Apple’s iPad 2 announcement, but I’m confident that consumers will be thrilled with the product. Apple already had a massive lead in the consumer tablet market it created, and these "underwhelming" upgrades should keep the company comfortably ahead. Apple has given competitors an opening by sticking to 3G, and it did not further pressure them with a lower entry price point or higher-resolution display. However, Apple has three critical advantages.

1. Brand: When consumers are thinking about tablets, they say they are buying an "iPad," not a "tablet." The iPad was already the category and volume leader, and the iPad 2 builds on that. In this respect, Apple actually benefits from the crowd of new tablets hitting the market. If there were only one or two strong competitors, consumers would be able to weigh the pros and cons of each offering, but with dozens and dozens of options hitting the market over the next few months, decision paralysis can set in and many consumers will throw up their hands and make the “safe” choice: the iPad.

2. iTunes: The iPad is still the only tablet on the market with a huge digital marketplace for movies, TV shows, and music. Some competitors are taking steps in this direction (e.g., Samsung's Hub), but iTunes remains a significant competitive advantage.

3. App Store: If all you want to do is browse the Web and check e-mail, any tablet will probably suffice. However, Apple has an enormous lead in purpose-built apps. The Android ecosystem is strong and app availability should improve significantly over time, but the iPad 2 is considerably more versatile than any of its competitors right now, and it appears unlikely to lose its lead any time in the near future.

So if you are competing with Apple, what should you do? Rather than copying Apple’s products, copy its old advertising tag line and Think Different.

Apple’s brand is focused on creative types (or those who aspire to be), which is why it spends so much effort creating things like GarageBand. Competitors should target IT managers, knowledge workers, outdoorsy people, or some other group and build software and hardware combinations better suited to those use cases. Of course, this will take imagination and the ability to tie hardware, software, and services together to build unique experiences. There are some companies thinking outside the box (HTC and RIM have clearly differentiated products on their roadmaps), but for the vendors who are trying to out-Apple Apple… good luck. Here are some pointers, you’re going to need them:

• Based on Apple’s financials, it is clear that the iPad with WiFi is Apple’s volume product and 3G versions are merely gravy. Why is the competition only targeting the gravy?

• iTunes remains a significant competitive advantage for Apple – I cannot easily explain to novices how to get a movie onto the XOOM. Rivals need an “iTunes” of their own, but having one just achieves parity with Apple, so partnering is an acceptable approach. However, half measures are not enough; digital media stores must include movies (including rentals) and TV shows and music. If multiple partners are used, the tablet vendor still needs to provide a common interface and single account/billing relationship.

• Nintendo has a significant base of game developers targeting the 3DS; if you cannot muster equivalent resources (for gaming, media playback, or some other use), adding 3D to your tablet is just a gimmick.

• Apple’s rivals can compete on 4G, higher-resolution displays, or a lower price. Even speed is a potential differentiator from a technical perspective; NVIDIA has quad-core processors sampling this month, so rivals could build even faster tablets for this holiday season. However, I must still caution vendors that all of these factors are irrelevant if consumers do not want your product.


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