Four months into 2011, and the only thing that is clear about the tablet market is how mixed the situation is. While it is to be expected there will be winners and losers, in this case the market seems to have split into two distinct camps: Apple and everybody else.
Since the start of the year, Apple has unveiled its iPad 2, and according to various reports, sales have been brisk. For all of the talk of an entirely new design, the product is an incremental upgrade to the first generation unit. But according to US reviews magazine Consumer Reports, this has been enough to keep it ahead of the pack, with the first of the major challengers to reach the market, Motorolas Xoom, only managing to tie for second place on a par with the first-generation iPad.
This does not appear to have helped Xoom much. According to a Pacific Crest analyst, sales of the device are disappointing. Deutsche Bank estimated cumulative sales of 100,000 to the start of April 2011 compared with 300,000 iPads reportedly sold on the first day. Motorola previously claimed sales had started relatively well, which sounds like a case of damning with faint praise if ever there was one.
While Samsung may have been first off-the-blocks with its Galaxy Tab, again it was reported that sales have been lacklustre. US operators Sprint and Verizon Wireless have cut the price to US$199 with a two-year service contract, in order to generate more interest in the face of fresher competition from Apple and Motorola. The pace of sales to customers was questioned earlier in the year. Samsungs anticipated 10 tablet has also been revamped to make it more competitive with the iPad 2.
But at least Motorola and Samsungs products have reached the market. RIMs BlackBerry PlayBook is still missing in action, and the news ahead of launch has not been great. It was reported that the device will lack native email, calendar and contacts apps at launch meaning it will lack some of the core functionality which made the BlackBerry brand successful. Unlike rival products, it still lacks integrated mobile connectivity at launch putting it at a significant disadvantage to rival products. Perhaps more worryingly, RIM recently said that costs related to the launch of the PlayBook would eat into its profits, due to increased R&D and sales and marketing costs.
And a number of other products are also waiting in the wings. HTCs Flyer should reach the market next month, and new products from vendors including Acer and LG Electronics are also in the pipeline. HPs anticipated first webOS device has also been announced, and numerous MeeGo terminals have been reported.
The big question is: how can Apple manage to make a success of the tablet market while its rivals and Samsung and Motorola, for example, are no fools cannot?
At least part of the issue must come down to Apples brand cachet, and the fact that the iPad is an established force in the market. Developers have been creating apps for the device for twelve months, meaning customers have a choice that contrasts starkly with the limited portfolio available for Android. Apple has also been able to price the device at a level its rivals have struggled to better with their alternatives and there is no evidence so far that Android (or BlackBerry Tablet OS, or webOS) can offer a user experience to justify a high price.
It is perhaps the latter point that holds the most sway. Early Android tablets (and some planned devices) are based on Android 2.3, which remains a smartphone platform stretched to support a big screen. And Google is keeping a tight control over Android 3.0, which is optimised for tablets, in a way that could almost be perceived as the company attempting to ensure it does not gain too much traction in the wild.
Of course, future versions of Android (and webOS, and BlackBerry Tablet) will deliver an improved performance, but by then the early adopters and other low-hanging fruit will have been grabbed by Apple. With the number of compelling use cases for tablets also conspicuous by their absence, convincing mass-market consumers to buy devices may well be an uphill struggle especially with household incomes remaining pressured in many countries. And unlike smartphones, there is also no clear upgrade cycle for tablets, meaning that customers who have already bought a device may not be keen to shell out when a new one becomes available unless someone can uncover a must-have feature which has escaped rivals.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.