From the debut of the iPod in 2001 to the launch of the iPhone in 2007 to last year's launch of the iPad, Apple usually sets a high bar for the rest of the industry when it releases new types of electronic devices. And as this week's unveiling of the iPad 2 demonstrated, Apple is still well on top of its competitors in the tablet market.
TABLET TUMBLE: iPad 2 vs. Motorola Xoom
So why is Apple likely to rule the tablet roost for the foreseeable future? Here are four reasons:
1. A one-year head start
Tablets occupy a weird niche market somewhere between smartphones and laptops and it has proven difficult to really get them right the first time around. Think of it like this: The Motorola Xoom, the first device that's seen as a legitimate contender for the original iPad, was released just a week ago. Meanwhile, RIM's first crack at tackling tablets, the PlayBook, isn't due out until April. While these two companies are just dipping their toes into the tablet market, Apple is already on its second generation of the iPad.
And from an engineering standpoint, the iPad 2 has made some significant improvements that should keep it in the lead until its rivals release their own second-generation tablets in the future. First, the new iPad is thinner (0.34 inches) and lighter (1.35 pounds) than the original iPad or any of its competitors. Second, it now has both a front-facing and rear-facing camera that the original model lacked.
2. A more mature app market
Applications have become an increasingly popular feature of mobile devices over the past couple of years, especially with the high-profile launches of application shopping centers such as Apple's App Store and Google's Android Market. The most recent survey data from research firm ChangeWave shows that 14% of smartphone users said applications were what they liked best about new smartphones, followed by ease of use (12%) and Internet access (12%).
With that in mind, consider that the Apple App Store already has an estimated 65,000 applications tailored specifically for the iPad while Android tablet users will have to wait until developers become more accustomed to the "Honeycomb" edition of Android before they start churning out apps for the Xoom and other Android tablets at a similar rate. Given the past enthusiasm developers have shown for Android, it's quite likely that Honeycomb tablets will catch up to the iPad in terms of application offerings, but for now Apple is the biggest game in town.
3. Enterprises are already adapting to it
Yes, this is counterintuitive since Apple has made clear that the iPad is a device for consumers first. And yet the iPad's success has led inevitably to employees bringing their tablets to work and wanting to use them for corporate e-mail. And while enterprises generally don't see the iPad as a replacement for a PC or a smartphone, a significant number of businesses are at least intrigued enough by their potential to order some for the workplace.
Research released late last year from ChangeWave found many enterprises are considering taking the tablet plunge. Among business IT buyers surveyed, 7% said their company currently deploys tablets, and 14% said their company planned to buy tablets in the first quarter of 2011. ChangeWave found that the iPad dominated corporate purchasing plans, as more than three-quarters of the businesses who planned on buying tablets reported plans to buy the iPad. So although Research in Motion and Cisco have both developed tablets that are tailored specifically to enterprise users, it's the consumer-oriented iPad that most enterprises are looking at first.
4. The price is right
A cocky Steve Jobs bragged at the iPad 2 launch that the iPad "flummoxed" Apple's competitors and had set the bar for pricing in the tablet market. While Jobs was certainly overplaying his hand as far as future competition goes, for the time being he makes a good point. The iPad 2 not only has lower pricing on its 32GB model than the rival 32GB Motorola Xoom, it also has a far wider array of pricing options for customers to choose from. So if you don't feel like shelling out $729 for an unsubsidized 3G-capable 32GB iPad, you can get a 16GB Wi-Fi iPad 2 for a mere $499, as well as 32GB and 64GB models that go for $599 and $699, respectively. In other words, people who don't have heavy-duty data requirements for their tablets will be able to purchase cheaper models while Xoom users so far can only choose the 32GB model.
None of this is to say that Apple is destined to rule the tablet market for infinity and beyond, of course. For example, look at the smartphone market: While the iPhone is still a massively popular smartphone, it's far from the only popular device in what has become an increasingly crowded market. But just as it took manufacturers such as Motorola, Samsung and HTC some time to catch up to the iPhone, so shall competitors struggle initially to match up with the iPad. For the time being, the tablet market is Apple's to lose.