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