Tablets. Tablets! TABLETS!!! (Or, Why Is It Impossible To Compete With Apple?)

To say that the iPad has set off a bit of a craze for tablets throughout the consumer electronics industry is a bit of an understatement. Just about every company under the sun has some sort of tablet in development in order to take advantage of this seemingly new market that Apple has opened up. Case in point: last week HP announced the HP TouchPad, a device that is clearly designed to take on the iPad. Even the name makes this clear. There are also a number of other tablets coming from companies like Motorola, LG, and RIM, as well as from other companies.

The proliferation of all of these iPad wannabes makes me wonder something: why is it so hard to compete with Apple? None of these tablets really seems like it’s going to be able to offer anything drastically different or better than what the iPad offers. Not only that, but none of them are even available yet. There’s a lot of talk going around the internets that these new tablets have all kinds of wonderful features that the iPad doesn’t have, but it’s entirely possible that the iPad 2 will be out before any of these competitors are available.

Right now, there are only 2 tablets available that directly compete with the iPad. These are the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Dell Streak 7. (There’s also the Dell Streak 5, but that device isn’t really sure whether it’s a tablet or a smartphone. I’ve seen it marketed both ways.) Neither of these tablets are all that compelling in comparison to the iPad, mostly because they’re both running Android 2.2, which is an OS that’s designed for phones, not tablets. The true tablet version of Android has yet to be released, although it’s supposed to be on the verge of release.

(In fairness, iOS, the operating system that powers the iPad, also started out as a smartphone OS, but the difference is that Apple makes iOS and they optimized it for the tablet form factor, whereas Samsung and Dell just slapped a smartphone OS that somebody else made onto their tablets without making any major changes to it.)

So the iPad has been out for almost a year, and right now there are only two devices that really compete with it, and neither one offers a compelling alternative. A myriad of tablets are headed for release later this year, all with real advantages over the existing iPad. But as I noted earlier, it’s entirely possible that the iPad 2 will overshadow all of its competitors as soon as it’s announced.

Why have Apple’s competitors waited so long to come up with a compelling alternative to the iPad? After all, it’s not like this hasn’t happened before. Apple has dominated the market for MP3 players, largely in part because nobody has ever been able or willing to come up with a compelling alternative to Apple’s iPod line of MP3 players. And in the smartphone market, Apple is not the number one in terms of market share, but they do make more money off of their smartphones than any other player in this market. (No, I don’t have a link for that assertion. Feel free to prove me wrong.)  And I would argue that Apple is also winning in terms of mind share. Ask any average person on the street what the first thing that comes into their mind is when you say “smartphone” and I imagine 9 out of 10 people would say “iPhone”.

It’s not as if Apple was the first company into any of these markets. There were MP3 players before the iPod, there were smartphones before the iPhone, and there were tablet computers before the iPad. But in all these markets, Apple has been able to take already existing products and make them better. And those companies that were there first are either scrambling to keep up (RIM, Microsoft) or have more or less given up (Creative).

It’s not like Apple’s products are perfect. All three of Apple’s core iOS devices have seemingly major flaws. Lack of support for Adobe Flash, no expandable memory, no cameras on the iPad… the list goes on and on. And yet, Apple keeps on selling millions of these things while their competitors flounder around like fish on dry land.

I actually think that the issue is price. This is ironic, because Apple has a reputation as a company who sells their products at a premium price. And I’m not saying by any means that Apple’s products are cheaper than their competitors. But in actuality, at least in the markets that Apple dominates, their products aren’t any more expensive either. In fact, I think you could say that when it comes to MP3 players, smartphones and tablets, there is no company that has achieved a more perfect marriage of quality and value as Apple.

The proof of this assertion comes when you look at the one major market in which Apple competes but doesn’t dominate. This is the market for laptop and desktop computers. Apple’s makes fantastic laptops and desktops, and yet their market share for these products is quite low. Why? Because Apple sells their laptops and desktops at a much higher price than most, if not all, other major PC manufacturers. Apple’s cheapest laptop costs $1000. It’s perfectly possible to get a decent Windows laptop for $500. I don’t know about other people, but if I was going to buy a laptop, I’d probably buy a Windows laptop, just because they’re so much cheaper. But if I was going to spend $1000 or more on a laptop, I’d definitely buy a Mac.

Now, of course all things eventually come to an end. There will come a day when Apple is no longer the dominant consumer electronics company in the world. I have no idea when that day will come. And I have no idea who will replace them at the top of the heap. But I don’t think it’s going to be soon. Because frankly, right now I’m not sure there’s a company out there who has any idea how to compete with Apple.

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