Apple's premium tablet gain won't last in Asia

Its pricing structure indicates Apple's primary focus is the premium tablet market, but this gameplay is unlikely to work in Asia in the long-run as its competitors rush to fill the low-end mass-market void. And it's missing out on the untapped hybrid device opportunity.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

So, if you've been waiting for the retina display version of the Apple iPad mini, you'll soon be able to get your hands on one. But, it's not going to come cheap. 

Among its slew of new product announcements this morning which included software upgrades and MacPro, the company unveiled the iPad mini with retina display as well as the iPad Air. Prices for the tablet series start from a range of US$299 to US$499 for the basic models.

While the slew of product updates today might help inch Apple ahead, it's only a matter of time before the Android folks catch on--and catch on with more attractive price-points. (Credit: James Martin/CNET)

In Singapore, the iPad mini with retina display is priced from S$548 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, to a whopping S$1,148 for the 128GB with LTE version. The new iPad Air is priced from S$688 for the Wi-Fi-only 16GB model, to S$1,288 for the 128GB LTE version. 

These pricetags clearly aren't for the faint-hearted, and it seals Apple's long-standing reputation as a premium brand catering to the premium market segment. I'm not sure how long this strategy will continue to work for the company, especially in emerging Asia-Pacific markets which are particularly price-sensitive

This reinforces our view that Apple's share in tablets will continue to fall as Android's share rises over the coming years.

- Jan Dawson, Ovum analyst

It's how Android players like Samsung were able to catch up to the iPhone in the smartphone market, and there are already indications the same is happening in the tablet space. While the slew of product updates today might help inch Apple ahead, it's only a matter of time before the Android folks catch on, and catch on with more attractive price-points. 

Ovum analyst Jan Dawson said in a statement: "This [latest announcement] is the clearest statement Apple could have made that it is only interested in competing in the premium tablet space. 

"It leaves a huge chunk of the tablet market unserved by Apple while others such as Google, Amazon, and a raft of others aggressively target the sub-US$400 market. This reinforces our view that Apple's share in tablets will continue to fall as Android's share rises over the coming years," Dawson said.

According to Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, tablets are a maturing market and new sales growth globally is expected to slow from 143 million units this year to 166 million in 2014. "It will be difficult for Apple to move the needle on new tablet sales as the strongest growth is coming from emerging markets where customers are more price-sensitive," Epps explained in an e-mail. "As we've seen with recent iPhone sales, Apple has an easier time selling high-end products like the 5s to existing customers than selling less-expensive-but-not-cheap products like the 5c to new customers. The low-end of the market doesn't belong to Apple, and they haven't aggressively tried to change that." 

Gartner's Asia-Pacific principal research analyst Lillian Tay said the tablet market was still growing, though not in leaps and bounds like before. She said buyers in this space were no longer early adopters, compared to two years ago, and now looked beyond brand consideration. Instead, factors like value, quality, and cost were more seriously considered among buyers, Tay added.

Noting that Web penetration is a growth driver of tablet adoption, Forrester projects that Asia-Pacific in 2017 will be home to the world's biggest online population. The region will have the largest tablet install base, accounting for 34 percent of the global figure by 2017.


I spoke with Clement Teo, Forrester's Asia-Pacific senior analyst, who doesn't believe price-point will remain a major barrier as consumers in emerging markets become more affluent. He pointed to how the iPhone 5s proved to be more popular than the cheaper 5c in China.

"As more emerging markets become more affluent, price-point becomes moot," Teo said, noting that consumers will instead be looking at the different bundles offered by their local telcos to make their final decision. "So you'll have to look at how Apple works with the telcos and incumbents in key markets like China and Indonesia, as part of their go-to-market strategy." 

But, I'm not sure I'd agree consumers in this region aren't price-sensitive. The price difference in China between the iPhone 5s and 5c--touted as the affordable version of the smartphone--is only US$131, so it's not gonna be a major deal breaker. 

And that's another thing that baffles me. With today's announcement of the iPad Air and iPad mini with retina display, there's a small S$140 difference between corresponding versions of the iPad Air and iPad mini with retina display. For instance, the iPad Air 128GB LTE version will cost S$1,288, while the iPad mini with retina display 128GB with LTE is priced at S$1,148. 

At that insignificant price, and weight, difference, and for similar specs--both sport the A7 chip, 5-megapixel camera, and same battery life--the primary deciding factor on which iPad to buy boils down to screensize. 

Ovum's Dawson said: "It seems as though Apple is trying to push average selling prices for iPads back up again after they’ve dropped steadily over the past year. Both [iPad mini and iPad Air] devices should sell very well, especially over the holiday period, but Apple held off being as disruptive as they might have been by pricing them relatively high."

Untapped opportunity in hybrid devices

It also missed the opportunity, I think, to be disruptive in the hybrid product category which includes phablets and the 3-1 devices such as the Asus PadFone. Current market offerings still miss the mark, with users often citing issues like insufficient memory and compute power, lack of app and platform interoperability, and bad user interface. "[The hybrid device] doesn't do any one thing well," one user said. 

Another user said these combination devices, from what he has seen, aren't user-friendly. The price-point and app support will be key considerations before he'll be motivated to buy a hybrid device. "It really depends on what I'll use it for and how much I'm willing to pay," he added. 

A colleague who has the Asus PadFone said RAM is important on such devices to support true multitasking capabilities needed for work. "The app and OS ecosystem also needs to be there and has to be interoperable when you switch between mobile and desktop mode," he said. He pointed to Ubuntu Edge, which he said seemed to have the potential to offer that seamless integration between the different platforms. 

A crowdsourcing-funded project, Ubuntu Edge is tipped to provide dual-boot capability for Ubuntu mobile OS and Android, converting a mobile device into a full desktop computer.

Forrester's Teo, though, thinks hybrid or combi-devices will remain a niche market. "I believe simplicity is always the driver for adoption, and these combination devices don't seem to be able to address this requirement."

I believe it's a matter of execution, and Apple has the potential to meet this challenge. It already has the OS and apps for the mobile and desktop space, and it also has the hardware know-how in both platforms. Supported by its iCloud, which can offer access across the different platforms, the iPad maker simply needs to figure out a way to seamlessly bridge the two worlds--of mobile and desktop--and provide the interoperability factor that's still missing in current market offerings. 

Throw in wearable technology, and it will create a complete ecosystem that ties together the different components of personal, mobile, and desktop. More importantly, it's an ecosystem that has yet to be addressed by its competitors. 

But with initiatives like Ubuntu Edge now in the works, it might not be long before the Android camp--which already has the likes of Google Glass and Samsung Gear on which to tap--figures out a way to do so. Where will Apple be then?

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