Dear Apple, tablets don't work. Marketing does

How an Apple tablet can succeed with spin and a killer ecosystem...

How an Apple tablet can succeed with spin and a killer ecosystem...

Like everyone else with an interest in technology, you'll be well aware that Apple is more than likely to launch a tablet computer this week.

Of course, there's been no official confirmation a tablet is coming, but a colourful invite asking journalists to 'come see our latest creation' at an event this Wednesday has been broadly taken as proof that the long-rumoured device is on the way.

The rumour mill is in hyperdrive, as everyone from bloggers to broadsheets speculate over its spec, its business model, its functionality - even its size.

Apple thrives on such hype, stoking it through what appears to be a series of carefully placed leaks to the press. Such is its marketing genius.

And it's that marketing magic that will determine the success or otherwise of the tablet.

Tablets, after all, are nothing new. The name was coined by Microsoft at the start of the decade but the form factor is older still.

Since the first devices surfaced in the 1980s, tablet-style consumer gadgets have launched and re-launched many times.

Indeed, Apple itself has played in this space before with the Apple Newton - a touchscreen tablet-style PDA device which launched in 1993.

It was big, it was bulky, it was very expensive - and it prompted a New York Times article at the time labelling the device the then Apple CEO "John Sculley's folly".

"The personal digital assistant or PDA, is still a technology in search of a market," the article pronounced.

Many would say the same of the tablet PC: despite repeated attempts to reboot the form factor, it's never become a mainstream proposition.

Tablets have instead carved a niche in vertical industries such as healthcare, doing utilitarian things like giving doctors access to patient records at the bedside, while consumers have adopted new form factors from the netbook to the smartphone.

So if Apple is about to launch a device whose form factor has historically failed and failed repeatedly, how can the company make it succeed this time around?

To coin a phrase, it's the ecosystem, stupid.

Should Apple launch a tablet next week, says analyst Carolina Milanesi, research director at Gartner, the hardware will just be the tip of the iceberg...

...there must be a strong, stable and trusted ecosystem in place to support the device.

"[If Apple launches a tablet] they're going to do what they do with everything else which is not just sell you the hardware but sell you an experience, and sell you content to go on that hardware to make your experience/need for that device much greater," she told silicon.com.

Richard Holway, director of analyst house TechMarketView, concurs: it's the ecosystem that drives the hardware, not the other way round.

"No product can exist just on its own," he said. "You have to have an ecosystem that goes around it and every single successful product that has been launched - all the way back to something like the IBM PC which had to have Lotus 1-2-3 to make it work, all the way through obviously to the Apple products of the last decade - it isn't just the products it's all the things that go around it."

It's historically an area Apple has done well in - think of the iPod and iTunes. While Apple wasn't the first company to make an MP3 player, it became the brand leader with the iPod by creating the iTunes ecosystem around it. By developing a comprehensive, easy-to-use download store to go alongside its music player, Apple made the iPod a more compelling proposition than the standalone devices it was competing with.

It's a strategy that served it well again with the iPhone. Rather than simply building a phone, Apple built an ecosystem of apps, music, games, video - all delivered through the company's own online store.

"There were loads of phones that were as good as the iPhone but nobody has an ecosystem in the way in which Apple has built it," Holway added.

Of course, even if Apple has become an expert at building ecosystems and partnering with key players in relevant industries, any tablet launch will still bring it into slightly uncharted waters, as Forrester principal analyst Ian Fogg notes.

Unlike the iPod and the iPhone, the tablet is still not a device with a clear use case - it's "an ill-defined category", according to Fogg.

As a result, Apple's marketing muscle will be more important than ever.

"The bottom line is that what people in the media and the industry are calling a tablet isn't a clearly defined category that consumers will go 'I know what that is, it has these benefits, that's why I should buy it'," said Fogg. "Which means that to succeed, someone needs to create something which has the right balance of features, picks out the key benefits and actually markets and defines the category.

"That's what someone needs to do for [a consumer tablet] to succeed - otherwise it will continue to be something where people keep experimenting but no one creates a mass-market product."

It's a challenging proposition alright - but if anyone's marketing machine can step up to the tablet-shaped plate, my money is on Apple's.