Will the iPad be as unbeatable as the iPod?

Remember how well all those “iPod-killers” worked out? The same fate may befall the competitors to Apple’s tablet.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad, many observers (including me) called it a big iPod Touch. We were talking about the similarities in design and functionality. But as time has gone on, I've started to think the iPad and the iPod may share another trait: Invincibility.

Generation after generation of audio players were declared iPod-killers, either by their makers or by the press. And yet the iPod emerged without a scratch. Now, manufacturers are pouring resources into iPad challengers. I suspect, though, that when the dust settles on the tablet market, iPad alternatives like the Xoom may end up like the Zune.

Many people disagree with that analysis. When they speculate on the future of the iPad, they don't look at the iPod experience, but at what happened in personal computers. Apple had a great, user-friendly OS, but it was only available on Apple's hardware. Eventually Macs were swamped by the greater hardware options available with Windows. That's the paradigm that seems to be playing out in smartphones, in which the pioneering iPhone is being eclipsed in market share by the sheer number of phones that run Android.

It's easy to conclude that the same will happen in tablets -- as more and more companies produce Android tablets, that Android Army will eventually overrun the iPad's current dominant position.

I don't think so. Why? There are three main reasons:

Tablets aren't Necessary.

Obviously, reasonable people can disagree on this one (unreasonable people do a lot of disagreeing about it as well), but it's my opinion. I've had an iPad since it was first released. There's a lot I like about it, but if it broke tomorrow, I wouldn't replace it and wouldn't miss it (much). If you disagree, I'd ask this: If you had to throw away one device -- your notebook, your smartphone, or your tablet -- which would it be? I'd wager most people would choose their tablet.

Why is this important? Because if a device is absolutely necessary, you make compromises in order to have one. After the introduction of the original Macintoshes, the personal computer rapidly became a necessity for many people. If they couldn't afford a Mac, they wouldn't hold off on buying a computer, they'd buy a cheaper Windows PC. Same with the smartphone: Lots of people wanted an iPhone, but it was expensive and only available on AT&T. Not having a phone wasn't an option, so they tried Android alternatives.

Few people would say they absolutely have to have an MP3 player (or, I believe, a tablet). That means if they can't afford the one they want now, they can wait a few months until they can. (And, of course, if you can't afford an iPad, you can't afford a legitimate tablet, period. More on that in a moment.)

User Interface is Everything

Lots of MP3 makers tried to compete with the iPod on specs: "Ours has an FM tuner!", "We support more audio formats", etc. The problem: Nobody cared. For audio players and, I'd argue, tablets, specs are meaningless compared to the user interface. You want an interface that's clear, smooth and attractive. (For tablets, you also want lots of app options, another area Apple has a huge advantage in.)

That's not to say that there aren't (or won't be) parts of other tablet interfaces that are better than iOS. But trying to convince large numbers of consumers that your interface is better than Apple's -- even when it is -- is a tough sell.

The iPad has the Big Mo

Unlike the iPod, the iPad was the first significant tablet in the market and had the field to itself for the better part of a year. No mainstream tablet has managed to undercut the iPad's price and it's unlikely any will, given the contracts Apple is rumored to have lined up for touchscreens.

There are about 65,000 tablet-specific apps for the iPad. The BlackBerry PlayBook is scheduled to launch with 3,000, but my colleague Melissa Perenson says many are embarrassingly primitive and look like old DOS programs. There are more apps that will run on Android tablets, but the number that aren't just blown-up, fuzzy versions of smartphone apps is vanishingly small.

But Apple's app advantage is temporary, right? With more Android tablets, the reasoning goes, there will be lots more Android tablet apps. Maybe. But app developers have an awful lot of choices to make right now: Do they develop smartphone apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, WebOS? Do they make tablet apps for the PlayBook, the iPad, or Android options? At some point, it just becomes too much and developers are going to opt for the platform that has the users. And among tablets, that's clearly the iPad.

I Hope I'm Wrong

Both personally and professionally, I hope this analysis is wrong. As the editor of PCWorld, it's better for my business to have a spirited, interesting tablet competition to cover. It's more fun to report on and brings in more readers. And as an average technology citizen, I think Apple's got enough power already without completely dominating an important new product category.

But as I look at the tablet market, I feel more and more like I've seen this movie before. It starred the iPod ... and a bunch of other actors I've long since forgotten.

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Edward N. Albro

PC World (US online)
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