Taking on the iPad

25 Jun, 2011 | TechTdp

Every computer manufacturer seems to want a piece of the tablet pie, so how do you go about it?  As I mentioned in my previous article, there are plenty of markets that Apple won't enter and you can make a healthy living in, but if you're determined to go after the consumer dollar, here's some suggestions on top of my previous suggestions.

Make it Simple

Apple rules by making computers work more like consumer electronics (go read the bit about redesigning a DVD burning app).  Most people don't care what's going on under the hood, as long as it works, they're happy to believe it's magic.  The Google boys don't get this, they're engineers.  They seem to be launching a new version of Android every couple of months, the same as with Chrome.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but every tablet that gets released seems to have a different version, so you don't know if you're getting the latest and greatest or some tired old version and, to make matters worse, there doesn't seem to be any guarantee you can upgrade when a new version is released.

Let's get some control on this.  Just call it by the main version name (Android 3, for example), so we don't have to worry about sub-versions with weird names like Honeycomb and Gingerbread and make every manufacturer agree that, if they want to use Android, their devices must support easy upgrading of the OS.  By easy I mean seamless, just one click and the upgrade is done in the background, update the screen when done (no reboot necessary).

Ironically, and it may be too early to tell, but Windows 8 (or whatever it's eventually called) might gain advantage in this area.  Windows already has a familiarity for practically all users.  If Microsoft can port the applications already available over to the new OS and come up with a way to make ordinary applications more touch friendly they'll have a huge base of applications people are familiar with.  The question is, with the release not until late in 2012, will they be too late?  Add in the cost of the OS, while Android is free, and it'll push prices up with manufacturers already struggling to compete with Apple.

Universal App Support

Consumers don't want to find only certain applications will run on their version of the OS.  Apps need to be universal and run on every version.  If there's new functionality then there needs to be a fall back for older versions so the app can still run.  Aside from new versions of the same OS, how Microsoft can handle application porting to the ARM platform could play a huge part in this.

Get Connected

I've been harping on for a while about how manufacturers need to join forces and agree a universal alternative to the iPod connector if they want to get more support for add-on devices (which will help them sell more of their own devices).  Even Apple use a universal on all their devices so encourage the plethora of docks and other devices that are available for the iPod, because the standard will mean all devices will work, so there will always be a big market.  Create a standard and you encourage manufacturers to release for it.  There's a reason only iPod connections are available in cars and everyone else has to live with the paltry aux input.

Being connected is more than just physical connections though.  While I think USB ports are a good idea, and some sort of dock connector, I'm not sure HDMI is a big priority (I can hook it up to a TV, but how do I control it when I'm sat 10 feet away?).  It may be useful for connecting an external screen, but that could be done with the dock connector and an adapter.  Having received a Kindle I've used the 'send to Kindle' feature for books and web pages a lot, so I know the benefits of being able to download content without connecting to a PC.  A USB port to allow uploads via a stick is fine, but some way to sync content wirelessly would be a great feature.  iCloud is Apple's answer to this.  You could build your own service, but why not team up with an existing provider (like Dropbox, which already does what iCloud will do)?

Supplying Content

While I see a place in the market for a simple tablet that just lets you surf the web (and let's face it, many applications are already web-based), there is still going to be demand for movies, music, books, games and apps.  Apple has already shown this can be a huge money spinner (to the point you can almost afford to make the tablet a loss-leader).  The problem is that many manufacturers just aren't good at building an online shopping experience.  Most of the big names have had a try, and failed.  Then you've got the ongoing deals with content owners.  It's enough to make you feel queasy, except for the money on offer.  So why not go the easy route and outsource it.  Let someone with more experience and existing content deals do the hard work and just take a cut.  Amazon would seem a likely candidate to supply books, music and (soon) video, they know how to sell, they have the size, infrastructure and distribution as well as the content deals.  They're rumoured to be releasing their own tablets too, so presumably they will be ready for this.

Why limit yourself to one provider though, the benefit of being open means you can include anyone.  Hook up with Netflix, Spotify and Hulu and anyone else who can supply content your users will want.  While having the ability to get things from other sources is great in theory, it needs to be simple, integrated and with as few barriers as possible, that's why iTunes is so popular, it's integrated into every iOS device.

Play on the Differences

Some people will buy a tablet that is anything but Apple, just because they don't want to buy an Apple product, so emphasize your differences.  Play up the open nature, play up the ability to load whichever app you prefer to read your mail, tweets or facebook updates in, instead of being limited to what Apple allows.  Play up the fact that they can get media from any source and load it on your tablet.  There's no point ignoring the market leader (and they are by a huge margin, the iPad has somewhere north of 75% of the market depending on which study you read, 84% if you believe Gartner, tablet web traffic suggests 89% globally and 95% in the US according to comScore).

How about Flash, for a start?  It's not going anywhere any time soon and it opens up a lot of content that the iPad simply can't display.  Better multi-tasking.  Multi-user support would be interesting, allowing a tablet to be shared in the household.  Allow customised home screens so people can use the device as an alarm clock or get up to the minute news and weather.  There are plenty of things the iPad doesn't do which you can attack and then wax lyrical about.

Bake in some of the functionality that you currently have to download apps for, certainly better handling of files and Office integration would appeal to many.  Hook up with other manufacturers to add functionality, like Vizio have integrated an IR transmitter to allow you to control your TV from their VIA tablet.

Copying the iPad, as has been shown by manufacturers of MP3 players trying to copy the iPod, is a recipe for disaster.  You need to pick where to compete though.  Size, for example, would allow massive deviation, but the 10" form factor wasn't arrived at by chance, Apple would have put a lot of research into it, that's why most people prefer it.  If you have a good reason to go different (a niche application, maybe you want to go with two screens) then fine, but otherwise it's not an area to change, focus on something else.

Think about Amazon's positioning of the Kindle, they specifically attack the iPad's gloss screen because they know it's where they win.

Market Clever

At the moment I suspect most consumers aren't even aware there are alternatives to the iPad, let alone why they should buy one.  You could go out and spend big dollars on advertising to try and break through the Apple stranglehold, but I'm not sure you're going to succeed.  So try an alternative approach.

Get some of the tech bloggers together, give them a nice lunch and let them play with your tablet, let them take them home at the end, ask them to write honest reviews and provide feedback.  Roll them out for free to some high profile events (e.g. the Olympics, the Oscars, TV coverage), find an event where you can replace paper, get some big stores to use them to allow shoppers to browse products and find more info (the Apple store use iPads to show details about all of their products instead of static cards).  Find places where consumers will be able to interact with this and see how good they are without purchasing.

Perhaps it would be wise to team up with other manufacturers and the software makers to try and push your platform in the same way as the iPad, so people can see what Android, or Windows, or whatever, can do, how it competes with the iPad, what benefits it has.

Final Thoughts

In reality, no matter what you do you're likely to be playing second fiddle to the iPad.  The same way iPod is now a generic term for MP3 player, iPad is likely to define the tablet.  Going out on price is OK, but name me an MP3 player other than the iPod?  Price hasn't worked in that segment, it should have a bigger impact in tablets as there's more room to play, but features are likely to tell the most and consumers will be worried about how long their model will remain current, relevant and supported, not a problem the iPad will have, in the same way older generations of iPods still do the job.  There is no easy road to glory, but it's a segment that could yield nice revenue as PC sales decline, with more and more people buying second (and third) devices to use around the home.