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Predicting the Tablet Runners-Up

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Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) is widely expected to be the tablet market share leader for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, if market growth predictions pan out ,there's room for a few runners-up to also come out winners. Hopefuls include Samsung, Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI  ) , Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) , Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) , Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) , and Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) .

To figure out who might be a runner-up, let's think about how to be a runner-up. (This means actually applying stuff learned in school.) Competitive strategy has two basic approaches:

  1. Offer something differentiated others will pay for, or
  2. Keep costs low and compete on price.

Think different
Apple's iOS and iTunes are proprietary differentiators. While it wasn't the first company to offer a tablet, it was the first to offer a tablet that sold well. Other companies hoping to compete with a differentiated product are probably doomed if they try to compete head-on with Apple. The trick is to do something others are willing to pay for that's different from Apple.

HP is using this approach with its forthcoming webOS-based tablet. The TouchPad has received favorable reviews. HP is pitching the product's enterprise suitability and crossover appeal, i.e., its ability to meet both consumer and business needs. The TouchPad's screen size is similar to the iPad's. Pricing is not yet finalized.  

Research In Motion is another company taking a differentiated approach. Its PlayBook runs RIM's proprietary (but nonvetted) Tablet OS. I expected RIM to target its enterprise stronghold, but its confusing mixed-message marketing seems designed to also appeal to consumers.

The PlayBook is different: It needs to be connected to a BlackBerry smartphone for emailing and messaging, which many will see as inconvenient. It's initially only available with Wi-Fi network access, another key limitation, particularly given the company's historic focus on mobile customers. (RIM plans to introduce a version that supports 3G and 4G connections later this year.)

Only a few thousand PlayBook apps are available compared to more than 65,000 for the iPad. RIM's eleventh-hour plan to support Android apps is an inelegant compromise. The PlayBook's display is a mere seven inches versus the iPad's 9.7-inches, yet PlayBook prices are comparable to iPads with similar memory capacity.

It's no surprise the PlayBook, launched in late April, is reportedly off to a weak start ... even before RIM announced a product recall this week.  

Priced to move ... or not
Third-party tablet operating systems such as Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Android or Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Windows for tablets should help minimize tablet costs and increase app availability. They could also shorten product development cycles. Tablet vendors using a third-party OS compete on price and hardware features, such as speed, screen size, and cameras. As in the PC world, it can be tough to stand out. That said, with Microsoft looking like a potential Betamax of the tablet wars, the choice between Android and Windows could prove critical.

Motorola, Dell, and Samsung offer Android-based tablets. Samsung's Galaxy was introduced last fall with some success, but has been hampered by an OS that isn't optimized for tablets as well as its seven-inch screen. At least Samsung priced the Galaxy to reflect the smaller screen size.

Despite high hopes, Motorola's Android-based Xoom is off to a weak start. Motorola has been criticized for the $800 pricing on its 3G model that came in above comparable iPad pricing. The company says richer hardware features justify the price. The Xoom's screen size is similar to the iPad's.

Dell's Android-based Streaks are available in seven-inch and five-inch screen sizes. The smaller is considered a failure, while the price of the recently launched seven-inch version has already dropped to $399. It's unclear if the seven-inch version has had more success than its smaller cousin. Dell reportedly plans to launch a 10-inch Streak this summer,  perhaps an indirect endorsement of the larger tablets.

Sony has announced Android tablets for this fall in unique forms described as a "wedge" and a dual-screen "burrito." Industrial design is one of Sony's strengths and an obvious way for Sony to differentiate its products. Both have total screen area in that same ballpark as the iPad.

Foolish takeaway
HP's and Sony's yet-to-be-launched tablets could be contenders in the tablet wars, though both are late to the game. HP is using a differentiated product to go after a different market than Apple. Sony is using unique styling to appeal to Android buyers. In contrast, RIM's differentiated approach does not seem well thought out: It lacks focus, the product has some surprising drawbacks, and its benefits are unclear. The PlayBook gives me little reason to be optimistic about RIM's outlook.

Android tablets have met with mixed results so far. Google's fragmented tablet OS offerings may not be helping. The tablet-optimized version could boost sales and/or give investors a better read on the importance of screen size. With Apple's aggressive iPad pricing, competitors such as Dell, Motorola and Samsung may find success elusive and profits thin.

Which companies do you think will win meaningful tablet market share? An easy way to stay on top of market developments is the Motley Fool's free new My Watchlist feature. You can get up-to-date news and analysis by adding these stocks to your Watchlist now:

Fool contributor Cindy Johnson owns shares of Microsoft and wants to own an iPad. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended a short position in 2. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2011, at 11:11 AM, NEALWF wrote:

    "It's no surprise the PlayBook, launched in late April, is reportedly off to a weak start...even before RIM announced a product recall this week. "

    really where do you get your information from? when did making "facts" up count as new worthy?

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2011, at 11:11 AM, infektu wrote:

    "Only a few thousand PlayBook apps are available compared to more than 65,000 for the iPad"

    did you surf on the Playbook? Do you still need the "missing" 64,900 shortcut-apps that Apple has?

    Also, 7" is cheaper, way more portable and lasts longer than a 9-10". At that size you're better off with a netbook, which is a complete machine and needs "apps" even less.

    I guess we'll soon see what's going on with the two Galaxy models.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2011, at 9:33 AM, David369 wrote:

    Don't forget Amazon might/probably will come out with a tablet too. That should help mix up the tablet glut even more. I think I'll wait about 2-3 years before I even consider buying a tablet. It will take that long before the clear winner(s) emerge.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2011, at 9:56 AM, BOSPAT wrote:

    I think Samsung's new tablet that is due to come out soon will be the best threat to the iPad. Early review I have read for their limited addition are positive. Once one of these other guys (Song, HP, RIM, Motorola, etc.) are able to undercut the iPad, you will see Apple really start to lose market share. Of course that's easier said than done, but considering how much cheaper a PC can be than a Mac, it's necessary for these guys to differentiate themselves based on price.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2011, at 10:32 AM, SkippyJohnJones wrote:

    Wow, a couple of Playbook defenders! Forget the ancillary argument about # of apps or the definition of weak start, no tech reviewer anywhere has given the product a seal of approval. It has some serious shortcomings that can be fixed, but all indications are that for some reason RIMM forced the thing to market too soon. The tethering thing is just a silly leash on a top-end mobile device selling for $500.

    Thanks to the author for a pretty balanced review of the tablet landscape. I tend to agree with the conclusion that Android software will get better quickly and that the OEM winners and losers will quickly emerge. HP has a chance, but marketing and pricing will be key. They are way behind the eight ball in terms of market and mind share vs. iOS and Android. If they don't get traction quickly, they risk seeing their unique features reverse engineered by the two 800lb gorillas in the space pretty quickly.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2011, at 12:56 PM, Turfscape wrote:

    infektu wrote:"Also, 7" is cheaper, way more portable and lasts longer than a 9-10". "

    You've left me confused. 7-inches is cheaper than what? The 7-inch Playbook is retailing for the same price as the iPad. What is the "cheaper" portion you refer to?

    Also, how is 7-inches "way more portable" than 9-10 inches? The portability winds up being about the same. Neither fit in a pocket, but both are easily transported in one's hand or bag/backpack/purse/whatever.

    And, finally, how does it last longer? I haven't seen any reviews stating that Playbook has longer battery life than iPad. Apple's iPad gets quite good marks for it's battery life. Or are you referring to total product life? Will a 7-inch tablet actually last longer in total product life than an iPad? I can't see how...

    Perhaps your view is not entirely objective. Perhaps you would be better served to simply say 'I don't like Apple and would rather have an alternate product, regardless of usability and specifications'.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2011, at 2:24 PM, dividendgrowth wrote:

    There are many RIM bagholders and pumpers all over the boards.

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