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Has Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) found a recipe for how to compete with Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and its iPad on a more interesting level? The PlayBook will support Android apps and launch with more than 200,000 available apps as a result, while it retains its own appeal of a still trendy brand and a device that has been diligently developed and isn't exactly a quick shot at the iPad. That, however, may already be its disadvantage ... and the reason for its failure.
Two months ago, Apple's Steve Jobs told analysts and reporters that there will be no iPad rivals this year. Despite the wave of options, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI ) Xoom, and the Blackberry PlayBook, it seems as if Jobs' confident note was justified. During the iPad 2 release keynote, Jobs repeated his argument that the iPad is well ahead of its rivals. "Ahead," of course, is a word that isn't so simple to define in the tablet space: "Ahead" in what, exactly? Samsung, Motorola, and RIM define the meaning of this work differently than Apple.
What we have seen so far is largely scatter shooting: attempts to take advantage of a market Apple has created, rather than attempts to build a market, as Apple does. While other tablet makers still have the mind-set that tech specs will capture the interest of buyers -- as they did in the PC market -- Apple appears to be focusing on more lifestyle-oriented characteristics of tablets, such as their appearance, affordability, and brand perception. There is enough reason to believe that Apple has done its homework in this market -- moreso than anyone else so far.
The Galaxy Tab was a first shot at the iPad, but it did not really have the software platform to compete. Even Google refrained from demonstrating or even mentioning the Tab as an Android tablet in public. Motorola's Xoom is the first technically competitive Android tablet. But it is priced out of the market at $800. I am not quite sure how tablet manufacturers usually do their market research, or how Motorola could have been convinced that people would stand in line for an $800 Android tablet. Apple has repeatedly said that the iPad sweetspot is just under $630. This is the target manufacturers should be looking for, probably slightly below rather than above. If they try to copy Apple, then they need to go all the way, and not just chew up the specs.
First analyst expectations have come in, and it seems that the Xoom will be another Android tablet flop.
RIM has just begun pre-selling the Playbook and there are some notable differences in this device.
First, it is a BlackBerry. It already has a certain perception and brand quality that may be beneficial in the tablet market. BlackBerry still carries lifestyle implications, and if you own and love your BlackBerry smartphone, there is a good chance that you may consider a PlayBook (despite the fact that it is a rather silly name with a meaning that doesn't exactly speak to its target consumers). It is an interesting move that the PlayBook is Wi-Fi only at this point, but there are tethering options out there (AT&T now offers it for $15 in addition to the 4GB -- $45/month smartphone data plan, and T-Mobile is offering free data tethering with its regular "unlimited" (5GB) plan). So, in occasions when you really need data access via a cellular data network, you still can, if you have the right provider. Besides, we believe that there will be a trend in which smartphone and tablet data plans will have to be unified: How many data plans are consumers really willing to subscribe to?
RIM also said that the Playbook will be compatible with Android apps, which is an ingenious move. It is silly to assume that a new tablet product can create an app market from scratch, and we know that tablets need apps to succeed (which will be a problem for Hewlett-Packard's tablet). Then there is the $499/$599/$699 price structure, which surrounds the $630 iPad 2 sweetspot and matches Apple's tablet. RIM hits the mark on those requirements.
There are downsides, however. RIM is testing the 7-inch screen space, rather than the 10-inch screen market, which has been established as the norm by Apple. There is no information on whether consumers would prefer a 7-inch tablet over the 10-inch versions, and we have not heard from any marketers how well a 7-inch tablet could do against an equally positioned 10-inch versions. It is a clear risk for RIM.
The PlayBook has also design disadvantages as we believe that subtle differences in the appearance of the design of such a product can be reasons to complete or drop a buying decision. The PlayBook is, due to its size, substantially lighter than the iPad 2 (0.9 vs. 1.33 lbs), but it is marginally thicker (0.4 inches vs. 0.34 inches) and is designed with a hard, rectangular shape. The result is a much more bulky appearance than a seemingly much slimmer iPad 2. Tablets are largely lifestyle products, and the design matters.
The inner hardware specs are superior, however. There are 5 MP / 3MP cameras as well as support for 1080p video. Future PlayBooks will be available with WiMax support, LTE as well as HSPA+. But does that matter? Or is it perception and design that makes people stand in line for such a product?
We think that the PlayBook is the best iPad (2) rival yet -- it offers the most competitive characteristics on all levels and RIM has spent much more time developing its tablet than others. However, that may be its problem as well: The iPad has defined the tablet space so far, with considerable support from the iPhone and Apple's App Store. It is unreasonable to believe that the masses of consumers really want an iPad alternative: They already have the choice of buying different versions of an iPad and every other brand may be just an "alternative." If you can buy the original and it is even priced at or below the level of its copycats, then you will get the original.
Android's success so far has been based on smartphone choices the iPhone did not provide (phone models, prices, carriers, as well Google software that is unique and works exceptionally well on Android phones). Android tablets are much more trying to copy the original, but fail to offer valuable and unique reasons for consumers to buy them. Attempts to copy the iPad will always result in copycats. Manufacturers need to learn to stop following Apple and begin establishing entirely new products. There is no other way to compete with Apple on one level.
Is the PlayBook the (Android app-compatible) tablet to own? Possibly, at least right now.
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