In the wake of the announcement of the Apple iPad tablet device, computer makers are quickly rallying strategies and devices to challenge it.
The strategy: capitalize on renewed interest in the tablet category.
Is that such a smart idea?
For sure, companies such as HP, Dell, Sony and Acer care very much about a consumer electronics category in which they can make a quick buck. (Exhibit A: Netbooks.)
But I'm not so sure that following Apple's lead is the best long-term strategy -- especially since the iPad isn't yet proven in the marketplace.
"For us, the iPad launch is a benchmark," said Mike Abary, a vice president in Sony's Vaio PC division. Mr. Abary said he met with Sony executives in San Diego and had a conference call with company officials in Japan following last month's iPad launch to discuss the touch-screen PC market. He said Sony, which sells touch-screen e-book readers that have limited Internet access, is considering what new devices to develop.
The companies' plan is to undercut the iPad sticker price with new devices.
I've got several concerns about this scenario:
- Even before launching the device, Apple has already taken the lead in mindshare;
- Apple's closed system means it's tailored the operating system for touchscreen-only input;
- Apple is releasing several flavors of a single device;
- Apple has integrated the device with its robust, leading software and services ecosystem.
That's a formidable challenge.
According to the Journal, the computer manufacturers effectively let Apple do the hard work in reinventing the segment and are waiting behind it to snatch the interested (but not converted!) in line.
In sports, that's called drafting. It can be a smart position to make a late break for the win, but my problem is that I don't see an end in sight.
You see, part of what makes Apple's iPad so appealing is that it "just works" -- same as a Mac. With full, dictator-like control over its product, Apple can focus on the complete experience of the iPad -- not just what's on paper.
But few large computer manufacturers have managed to exert that influence on their own products, instead engaging in easy partnerships that clutter a user's experience with preloaded software and stickers on the outside.
We're already seeing that issue creep into smartphones, with carrier services appearing on Android phones.
What worries me about these manufacturers is that there exists a vision for a product, but not one for an experience. HP will undoubtedly unveil the Slate, and it may very well be a very good piece of hardware. But what programs will it run? Operating system? How will it coordinate with content to be viewed on the device?
These questions are arguably more important than the product itself.
To be sure, much of what's known about these forthcoming tablet devices is unconfirmed. But in the current age of technology, it's not enough to just create hardware -- you have to create software and services, too.
That means that a "Tablet PC" needn't be a tablet PC -- that is, running Windows as we've come to know it. Even Apple understood that. That's why the iPad runs iPhone OS, and not Mac OS X.
That's not to say Apple has already proven itself -- it hasn't. But it's reassuring that the word "experience" appears several times in the introductory video for the iPad.
Whether computer makers' tablets are $100 more or less than an iPad is of little concern to me at this early juncture, though it becomes far more important later once the field is crowded.
If PC makers want to bolster their dwindling profit margins with a tablet, they need to look beyond it. Perhaps that's to the Android operating system -- though that doesn't solve the issue of content partnerships that Apple is currently (and not quite successfully) negotiating with owners.
The slate tablet computer is an enormous challenge for PC makers: one of hardware, one of software, one of services and one of image. (Note to Dell, Sony, et. al.: naming a tablet the Dell Mini 5 or the Sony Vaio Q won't stir the hearts of consumers, I assure you.)
Are they up to the challenge? Judging by what's happened in the MP3 and smartphone segments, I'm not convinced that the story is complete enough to tell.