How Competitors Can Challenge the iPad

New tablets are starting to debut at a rapid pace and many more will be launching over the coming months. While the Galaxy Tab seems to have done modestly well, the iPad is still crushing the market. Most of the Android tablets just don’t look that exciting (yet) but I think by the end of the year that won’t be true.

Tablets need to do a few things to compete with the iPad, I’ll list them here in approximate order.

1. Compete on price. Nobody’s going to buy your Xoom for $800 when they can buy an iPad for $500. The lowest end iPad would seem to be the vast majority of sales. For a long time there when iPads were scarce, you could pretty easily pick one up by stepping up to the $600 level, but a $500 required waiting for weeks. Most people waited.

This makes sense. The whole reason one of these devices work is that everything is in the cloud. Your email is web based. Your video is coming from Netflix. Even your music is going to move into the cloud soon if it hasn’t already. What’s a few gigabytes at that point?

If your device is going to be priced higher than the iPad, there better be a damn good reason. Give me an AMOLED screen for example. (I think we’ll see this in the sequel to the Galaxy Tab, and it will be awesome.)

2. Think more along the lines of a notebook than an oversized iPod. This, I think, is one of Apple’s mistakes, both with the iPad and the iPhone/iPod Touch. They still make me tether my iPad to my PC. Why?  Developers have seen, as a result, that iDevices are often running on older OSes because people don’t want to do that.

And why should they? It’s ridiculous. There’s no reason this device can’t be updated over the air. There’s no reason it can’t sync music over Wi-Fi. With a Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse this device could be as independent and functional as any notebook. It’s Android competitors will be.

3. Better licensing terms to foster app development. While I’m not in the camp that thinks Apple’s app store policies are unethical or abusive, I am almost certain they’re a strategic mistake. Tablets are a glorified thin client and are largely meaningless without cloud services. When it comes to cloud services, subscription revenues are king.

Forcing good e-reader apps like Amazon’s Kindle, or good video apps (Netflix) off of your device in an attempt to get 30% of revenues from them is a mistake. Those kinds of apps are why the device exists. They don’t have high enough margins to eat 30%. It would have been better to enforce this policy from the beginning so that we wouldn’t have come to love those things only to have them yanked away.

4. Support Flash. This is a no brainer. The lack of Flash is constantly a pain on the iDevices, and none more so than the iPad. Want to look at the website of any high end restaurant? Nope! Watch Hulu? Nope! (That’s partially due to Hulu being a pain in the ass, though you can get around that on Android with some browser string hackery). Play Cityville? Nope.

The lack of Flash is a true annoyance on the iPad. It won’t be on Android devices.

5. USB ports. There’s no reason current accessories can’t be just a driver away from working with tablets. It’s understandable why Apple forces accessory makers to use their certified connector, but for third parties the ability to connect mice, keyboards, printers, cameras, etc. might be enticing. I know I’d love to be able to charge my phone from my iPad.

6. Don’t roll your own OS. We’re in the early 1990’s all over again here, and Apple’s simply repeating their mistakes from the PC market. If you want to compete, just do exactly what the PC makers did. License a good third party operating system (right now that means Android, though I expect there will be a competitor soon, but more on that in another post) that developers are supporting, that is going to give you a software lead which in turn will give you a sales lead.

Though I love WebOS (I’d rate it a 9, iOS a 7.5, and Android a 6 and I’m the only person I know who has used all 3 extensively) I think HP is making a big mistake. They’ve got a chicken and egg problem with their app market. Their hardware is too far behind the times (by the time the WebOS tablet launches the iPad 2 and who knows what Android tablets will be on the market) and they probably don’t have a good enough strategy or big enough ad budget to solve it. The same is true of RIM’s Playbook. 

I think we’re seeing only the beginning of the tablet market right now. We are where smart phones were 4 years ago and the space is really going to heat up. Competitors have the chance to do the same thing to Apple that PC makers did two decades ago.

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