The dusty tablet problem, or why you can't beat the iPad

Motorola's Xoom "Family Edition" and why Apple iPad rivals have yet to get their act together.

There are an awful lot of tablet computers out there. The problem is that no one's buying them.

Motorola this weekend debuted a $379 Xoom "family edition" that undercuts the segment-leading Apple iPad by a good $100 but fails to captivate the imagination by taking an existing device and chopping the memory in half, to 16GB.

(To be fair, the Xoom Family Edition comes preinstalled with about $40 worth of apps, such as Asphalt 6, SimCity Deluxe and the child access-restricting app Zoodles, which is the politically-correct version of what your children will say when they run up against the parental restrictions you've set. Zoodles!)

In an article about this device, the Wall Street Journal's Andrew Dowell acknowledges that the move "underscores the difficulty companies are having competing with Apple Inc.'s iPad on anything but price," citing Hewlett-Packard's ill-fated TouchPad and Research in Motion's poorly performing PlayBook.

Add Samsung's Galaxy Tab and it's clear that every company not named after a piece of fruit is grasping desperately for market share.

If you think that's just Apple-favoring puffery, it's not: the iPad accounts for about 75 percent of all tablet shipments. Despite the fact that Samsung, HP and others have been making portable computers for years, they were still caught on their heels when the iPad debuted at $499. In a moment of supply chain magic, Apple managed to release a premium product at a price its rivals couldn't touch. This high-low mix is still killing them, slowly.

This Xoom story is representative of where the tablet industry is right now. Instead of acknowledging the tremendous flaws in the device -- which I detailed on the Toybox blog in February of this year -- the company is rolling out the old horse again, with a disingenuous spin that is simply embarrassing.

(Why the harsh words? Because my biggest problem with the Xoom was its confusing user interface. And now you want to give this heavy glass thing to a child and say it was built for them? For shame!)

The problem with the Xoom -- and TouchPad, and PlayBook -- is that companies are rushing to market. None of them thinks they can beat the iPad, and at this point, they're right. So they're fighting over No. 2, as many chief executives of these companies have publicly acknowledged.

But mediocrity is not a sharp tool with which to wage war, and every iPad rival has debuted in some half-baked form: the Galaxy Tab offered too little for too much; the Xoom offered frustration at a premium; the TouchPad offered kludgy hardware and the PlayBook, loads of bugs.

You can nit-pick at any device, iPad included, but there are few who can argue that all of these rival devices didn't ship with obvious, could-have-fixed-it-if-we-didn't-rush-shipment problems. The common thread among all of these devices? Not enough thinking about the product itself, just the opportunity being missed.

Basketball fans, it's akin to passing the ball to where your teammate is, versus where he's going to be.

If you're a business user, this is a tough reality to swallow. It's clear that the tablet computer is a traveling executive's best friend, but no CIO is going to sign off on the purchase of thousands of unfinished products that might not make it to the end of the year. (We're not even talking about enterprise security and support here. We're simply talking about competence.)

It's been 1.5 years since the debut of the original iPad, yet we're still very much in the infancy of the tablet market. But the feeling persists, at least for me, that it shouldn't be this wild, this lawless, when it comes to execution.

Build a $500 device, sure. But don't make it feel like the cut-rate version of a device costing $1,000.

Consider this post a moment of frustration and a call to arms: tablet makers, please design and execute on a device that pleases an audience -- any audience -- better than the iPad. Attempts to fight a multi-front war are a losing strategy, and releasing a sub-par product is inexcusable, whatever the price point.