I was lucky enough to be in attendance last night for Samsung's announcement of its Galaxy Tabslate tablet computer, and I thought I'd offer my thoughts on how the company positioned its device as it unveiled it to the world from its showroom in New York City.
First, the background: the Samsung Galaxy Tab is a slate-style tablet computer -- think iPad, not ThinkPad -- that appears to directly compete with Apple's "magical" device. We've seen this comparison hinted at before (Dell Streak, I'm looking at you), but in the case of the Galaxy Tab, it appears that Samsung is really going after the successful iPad, and company executives all but mentioned it in name ("unlike a 10-inch tablet...") during last night's festivities.
Samsung confirmed several specifications and features about the device, which I'll list here.
7-inch TFT touchscreen display (1024 by 600 pixels resolution)
Weight of 13 ounces, or "about the weight of an unopened can of soda."
Thanks to its lithe figure, it fits into the back pocket of your jeans, or the inside pocket of a blazer.
It runs on the Google Android 2.2 (Froyo) operating system.
Thanks to Android 2.2, it supports Adobe Flash 10.1
It has two cameras: a 3-megapixel one on the back (with flash, DVD-quality video) and a 1.3-megapixel one on the front for videoconferencing and chat functionality.
It uses a 1GHz Hummingbird processor
It has 16 gigabytes of on-board memory. It's also expandable
It supports DLNA sharing and streaming among supported devices (TVs, laptops)
It carries a battery that's rated for 7 hours of video playback.
A Wi-Fi-only model is coming "in the near future."
Optional accessories include an external keyboard, docking station with HDMI port and a car dock.
Audio and video content comes via Samsung's new Media Hub.
It's available on all four U.S. carriers: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.
There's a lot to discuss with these details, so I'll try to approach them one by one.
First, the hardware. The Amazon Kindle-like 7-inch size is a diversion from the iPad's established 10-inch standard, and it remains to be seen how users will interact with a device of this size. Samsung stressed the ease in which applications could be formatted for the Tab without lots of additional coding, but the size suggests that the device may be more appropriate for the things users do with smartphones and the iPod touch -- web browsing, game-playing, news reading via apps -- versus the things the iPad hints at doing in the future, such as reading full-bleed magazines, interacting with textbooks and creating content.
As far as I could tell, the device operated with a fair amount of speed, though like Android phones are compared to the iPhone, it wasn't as seamless an experience. (Readers who have used both Android and iOS devices will understand this minor, but noticeable, difference.) Nevertheless, all the trappings of the iPad are there -- widescreen calendar and e-mail inbox, weather, etc. -- along with a few the current iPad model omits, such as videochat, Flash support and DLNA sharing. These features weren't dealbreakers for me with regard to the iPad, but it helps Samsung differentiate its product in the marketplace.
Second, Samsung's Media Hub was the unsung hero during this press conference. Any tech company can commission a shop in China to manufacture a tablet, even a well-designed one. But it's another thing to ensure that a robust ecosystem of content supports the device, such that it's not merely a well-appointed but faceless portal into another company's world. After all, just because a tablet is made to play movies and TV shows doesn't mean it's easy to get them on there.
Samsung has clearly leveraged its corporate largesse in this manner, securing deals with MTV, NBC Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros. for television shows and films. It also ensured that you could watch them as you download them, and share them between five Media Hub-enabled devices (count them: tablet, smartphone, laptop, television and a fifth).
This is a savvy move for such a large company, but it only works if you have a large enough user base to ensure that you don't feel locked into a proprietary ecosystem. (Exhibit A: Apple's iTunes.) The good news: Samsung is already quietly expanding its content empire with Android-powered Galaxy smartphones, of which the two millionth unit it expects to ship this week. And it already has a major space carved out in the TV market, which isn't important for most folks now but may soon be in the future.
Which brings us to the third major point about the Tab: it's available on all four U.S. wireless carriers. This is a major move for a few reasons:
Non-exclusivity shows that Samsung has a lot of corporate pull among carriers.
Non-exclusivity means that Samsung doesn't want the Tab to be the next Palm Pre.
Non-exclusivity means that Samsung can offer a tablet to customers who don't want, or don't have available to them, an account with AT&T (and thus the 3G iPad). This doesn't impact the Wi-Fi-only set, but it's a matter of opportunity: at least three of four carriers will proudly market the device.
The question that I wonder is whether consumers are as aware of their tablet carriers as they are their smartphone carriers. For example, AT&T remains a sore point for iPhone owners; do iPad owners really feel the same vitriol for the carrier?
It seems to me that without voice service, the carrier fades into the background. (Same goes for e-readers such as the Kindle or Nook.) So while AT&T remains a hurdle for consumers who want an iPhone, it seems less of one for those who want the iPad.
Perhaps this will change as tablets become more ubiquitous (and people get sick of paying three different companies for access to the same Internet). I'm not sure. But the carrier seems to be the last thing on my mind when weighing whether to buy a tablet.
There is one big catch in all of this: price. Short of declaring the device a "premium" product, Samsung was tight-lipped as to how much the Galaxy Tab would be. That's concerning, because usually when they don't say a price, it ends up being higher than it should be (and rapidly drops after press roundly criticize the figure when it's eventually released).
A few words about this: Samsung can afford to price the Tab high right now, because a tablet is still a novelty item to most, and attracts those who really, really want one. It's far from a commodity, which is why Samsung is saving the Wi-Fi only model for later -- it wants to move the more expensive units, then offer a lower Wi-Fi-only price point when 3G models lose steam. (After that comes an actual price drop, and a new model, etc.)
The pitfall in this strategy is the iPad, which again has first movers' advantage and a stirred consumer that really, really, REALLY wants an iPad. (Just look at the commercials.) Samsung hasn't traditionally been good at pulling consumers' heart strings -- does "Galaxy S" elicit the same emotion as "Droid" or the iPhone 4's FaceTime? -- and it needs a major marketing push to do so.
Otherwise, you'll have the Android thing all over again: consumers choosing the Tab because they can't get the iPad, either because of price or carrier. Samsung will still ship lots of units -- Android smartphones are exhibit A in this regard -- but it will need a very competitive price point to do so.