Soon, everyone will have a tablet in the market, it seems. Watching the HP TouchPad & friends (excellent coverage from Cade Metz) event this morning, I got to thinking about what tablet makers must do to compete with Apple. Most of them, so far, have failed on the key item: being cheaper than the iPad. That’s feature number one.
Price < iPad
I mean, let’s be frank: if you’re releasing a tablet, you’re benchmark and your competition is the iPad. That could change in time, sure, but for now, as in mobile, that’s the sort of Platonic model of perfection that most buyers seem to have.
The sell isn’t “here’s why you should buy our tablet because it’s awesome.” The sell has to be “here’s why you should spend your money on us instead of what you really want, an iPad.” As the always entertaining @jrep said in Twitter while we were watching the HP/Palm/webOS/TouchPad shin-dig: “Interesting, ain’t it, that Apple finds itself both “best” and “cheapest” for once?”
From what I’ve seen in non-iPad tablets released so far, each has been around the same price or more than an iPad. The Kindle is a the lone stand out here. I’d argue that it only succeeds because it’s cheaper than an iPad. Not having used one personally, but having talked with many people, the Kindle is a great form-factor and a great device for reading books (that screen is pretty fantastic looking, even across an airplane row). But if the Kindle cost as much as an iPad, most people I’ve spoken with would just get an iPad. They especially have that thought if I mention that you can run a Kindle app on the iPad.
As Stephen O’Grady put it awhile ago: “Anything more than the iPad is too much, given the quality of that device. Less is better, obviously.”
There’s some other differentiating “musts” as well that I’ve been metaphorically jotting down on the backs on envelopes as I see more and more tablet action:
- It better work and look good doing it – we’ve seen plenty of tablets in years past that were basically crap or just clunky enough to not really be worth it. Back when I was at BMC, a co-worker had one of those laptop/tablet things where the screen twisted around to be a “tablet.” I think it had a stylus too. It was just a little weird.
- Flash – having used iOS devices for awhile now, when I switch to a mobile platform that supports Flash (like Android on a phone or the Logitech Revue Google TV) I notice Flash is a good way. I sort of think, “oh yeah, I’ve been missing that without realizing it.”
- All-in-one device for business and pleasure – clearly, having as many devices in one as possible is highly desired (phone, camera, computer, digital picture frame, music/video player, email machine, etc.). The fact that the first iPad didn’t have a camera was pretty weird and something competitors can’t get away with. Another “all-in-one” is allowing people to use the tablet for both personal and work use – integrating with Exchange, VPN, Office formats, and all that. The emphasis on email in HP’s webOS bonanza this morning was a nice indication along these lines. The device has to work with corporate email and applications, but at the same time allow the user to cart around their personal music collection, photos of lady/guy-friends and kids. And most importantly, it needs games. Lots of games.
- App Integrations – allowing apps to integrate and communicate with each can be a big disaster, but done right it can be great. One of the major problems I have with iOS is the inability route different types of files and “streams” to different apps. For example, on an iPhone, looking at a picture you can only upload it to MobileMe (boo!), MMS, or email. While on Windows Phone 7, they add in Facebook – and then with Android (and WP7) you can actually gets apps that will add new Share options in there, say, for flickr. Providing these extension points makes the tablet platform more useful and customizable to how I want to do things. iOS has finally added in opening PDF files in other apps like Goodreader, but I’ve seen much better use of these extension points on Windows Phone 7 and Android.
- Apps – a tablet needs a wide range of popular apps if not right at release, very quickly. At the moment, your best bet is to probably just get the popular apps in the iTunes App Store duplicated in your app store, paying off the developers if needed (for some, free devices might do the trick, other will be more savvy and just want cash). While not a tablet, the current state of Google TV provides an excellent counter-example: the apps are limited to the handful of ones that come with it, making the device an overly expensive alternative to the excellently priced Roku box.
- Developers – the other side of apps is providing a platform that developers want to develop on (ostensibly, webOS should be doing well here, esp. with the tight node.js/HTML5 emphasis) and speeding up the compile-to-cash cycle as much as possible. In the mobile space, developers are (rightly) driven by profit motives: they want to sell apps. It’s a bit hyperbolic to make a point, but after a “generation” of developers raised on “open source as in ‘no one pays me for my code'” the prospect of making a living of selling software is alluring.
- Cables – just use USB cables, micro or mini, or whatever: use something that’s standard so I can use the same cable between my external hard-drives, camera, and tablets. This is more of a personal preference, but, again the point is to be compete with the iPad.
- Battery Life – as Stephen pointed out back in September, battery life is key. Being able to use a tablet “all day” is sort of the key use case and depends on portability, wide app availability (you can do all the things you need to do), and long battery life. Every happy iPad user mentions this to me, esp. the startup execs and sales people (an edge case – except if you consider all those field people at $500-600 a pop for a tablet) who basically use their iPad as a fancy, three-ring binder presentation slide binder.
Actually, you probably shouldn’t make a tablet
Finally, and to satisfy the Talebian quip that good consultants tell you what not to do: chances are you probably shouldn’t be making a tablet. Aside from a handful companies (good for you guys!), delivering a tablet is out of scope and potentially a big distraction from your existing businesses.
The task of doing a tablet well – read: not loosing money and avoiding lost opportunity cost – is immense, expensive, and multi-year. You’re essentially building a whole new computer platform. Worse, you could be OEM’ing a rag-tag of hardware and OS that’s going to get you into a thin-margin market. People like Dell, HP, Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba, and those folks can hack through businesses like that int he PC space (surviving that crappy marketplace is their core competency – compare to high-end Apple), but it’s not a model you want to get into as a new line of business.
I know, I know: your share-holders (if you’re not public, you’re probably nowhere near big enough to even think about making a tablet) are asking you WTF? on Apple making all that cash from phones and tablets. Just focus on making more money in what you know and then ask your share-holders, “do you want a tablet, or a higher share price?” Your existing customers who just want your existing stuff working better, and for cheaper, will thank you too.
(Side-note: while I was there for the HP TouchPad launch, it looked pretty fine – thanks to the guys at precentral.net for live-blogging it. Hopefully their pricing is good. As one of the commenters at precentral.net said, “Dear HPalm: Please make this worth the wait in a hundred different ways. It is my love for you that prolongs my patience, but it is now wearing thin.” Also, pardon the link-baiting title: I couldn’t help myself.)
Disclosure: check the RedMonk client list for relevant clients.