What The Third iPad Needs Most Is Some Competition

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“It’s obvious that the only iPad killer is always going to be the newest iPad.” The tweet from web- and mobile developer Zhephree caught my eye with its uncommon boldness. Wow, I thought, someone’s not afraid to drop some truth bombs. The next tweet, though, brought us back down to Earth. Zhephree’s statement had fallen under a fellow follower’s fire, so his response was:

“The simple fact that I don’t own an iPad disproves my tweet, that was just a joke.”

I believe him; I started following Zhephree on Twitter because he was developing apps for webOS back when it was a viable competitor, and I looked forward to seeing what he might bring to the HP TouchPad. But joke or no, he managed to capture a feeling shared by many observers of the tablet market. It’s hard to get reliable numbers on tablet market share, as manufacturers suavely boast about “units shipped” while staying mum about “units sold,” but it’s hard to deny the iPad’s standing as the leader in mindshare. That’s never more true than on the eve of a new iPad’s unveiling, of course, and this week is no exception: the buzz is reaching a fever pitch.

Speculation can be fun, but we’re in the third iteration of this product now, and we have enough idea of how Apple works to be able to make some reasonable deductions. The display is probably Retina-quality, the home button may or may not be gone, and we may be better be able to use our iPads to Siri it up. Maybe there’ll be a smaller iPad offered and maybe there won’t. See? Speculation fun, and done.

But releasing the third revision of a segment-defining product means Apple’s competitors have had three years to fill the market with their own tablets. So as Apple returns to the racetrack it built, with its newest shiny stock car in tow, let’s take a look at the competition it’s re-entering. Brace yourself: you probably won’t agree.

The Kindle Fire is the biggest competition, and here’s why

Last week (my first week writing for PocketNow) taught me that our commenters are a sharp bunch. No, I’m not saying that to ingratiate myself to a new audience; they’re a legitimately smart and well-informed group. So they probably know well the “joyful burden” borne by the tech-savvy: that of friends asking for buying advice. The questions tend to pile up in the days leading up to a notable new hardware release, and the iPad is the most visible tablet in the marketplace. People want to know whether they should spring for Apple’s latest, but they’re also increasingly wondering about alternatives, as competitors step up their game in advertising and marketing their offerings.

At the end of Q4 2011, Apple claimed 57% of the tablet market, with Android accounting for 39%. Again, that’s units shipped -not sold- but those numbers still surprise me, considering how many Android tablets I don’t see on a daily basis. We’ll call that a good reminder not to rely too heavily on anecdotal evidence.

During that same period, Amazon’s Kindle Fire came out of nowhere to capture a staggering 14% of the market. These figures are somewhat confusing, as the Kindle Fire’s market share was counted as part of the overall “Android” share in the first article. But that makes sense; the Fire’s OS is specialized, but it’s still Android.

JB Kindle

The Kindle Fire is important not just because of its performance from a sheer numbers standpoint, but because it’s the first device to truly capture the attention of the buying public. There are two reasons for this: One, Amazon leveraged the powerful “Kindle” brand to push a device into customers’ hands at a very attractive price point, and two: the customers stayed because Amazon also offered them an ecosystem to support that device. The hardware itself isn’t the best; performance is on the sluggish side and the interface isn’t for everyone. And yes, there are rumors of high return rates. Still, taking all those hits into account, this device has accounted for 14% of global tablet shipments in a single quarter. Granted, that’s not “units sold,” but (anecdotal evidence warning!) I do see Kindle Fires around. Quite a few, in fact. And people ask me a lot more often about the Kindle Fire than they ever did about the XOOM, Xyboard, or Galaxy Tab. Amazon has their attention.

The aforementioned intelligent commenters will be quick to point out that the iPad really doesn’t compete against the Kindle Fire: one is a full-size, full-service tablet, and the other is an eReader with a color screen. Apples (har) and oranges, right?

But think about it from the perspective of the imaginary “common consumer.” Why did so many people turn out in the fourth quarter of last year to buy Kindle Fires? They probably bought them to do the things they’ve seen people doing on their iPads. A survey conducted by BusinessInsider revealed that the top uses consumers were finding for their iPads in 2011 were web browsing (34%), email/Twitter/Facebook/”other communication” (21%), and watching video (12%). All things the Kindle Fire does serviceably, if not exceptionally. For most purposes, consumers who are in the market for a device to do the top 67% of activities done by an iPad really can be forgiven for viewing the Kindle Fire as a smaller, cheaper alternative. For their needs, it is.

But wait: more conventional Android tablets do the same things, only better! Why aren’t they being included in this conversation?

Well, let’s ignore Google’s failure to flesh out the Android tablet app ecosystem, judging “conventional” Android tablets on the same basis as we judged the Fire above (browsing, videos, email, and other basic usage). While almost every widely-available Android tablet is more responsive and capable than the Kindle Fire for this use case, no one out in the real world knows that’s true. Because Google has utterly failed to sell the idea of Android as a viable tablet OS. People don’t buy the Kindle Fire because it runs Android; they buy it because Amazon aggressively made people aware of it, priced it right, and sold it as part of an already-popular ecosystem.

Fire

You know who gets excited about the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the Asus Transformer Prime? Geeks like me, and since you’re reading this, probably you (in which case I shouldn’t have to mention that “geek” is no longer an insult, but I will anyway). You know who doesn’t get excited about them? Our parents, cousins, stepsisters, and all the other “normal” people out there, who are the overwhelming majority of the buying public. This isn’t like the situation Android faced in the American smartphone world, where the iPhone’s popularity was hampered by its carrier exclusivity for years, opening an opportunity for Android in the form of Verizon’s DROID campaign. It’s not like that with tablets. People will buy what they’re being sold, and they’ll keep what they’re sold if it has a useful ecosystem supporting it.

Some day in the future, that’s hopefully going to mean heated battles between the Kindle family, Windows 8, iOS, and some kind of “Google Experience” tablets running Android. But that fantasy land is not the environment the third iPad will be launched into in a few weeks. Make no mistake: Android tablets will continue to capture a large percentage of the user base as OEMs continue their market-saturation approach, but that’s because at the moment, they’re the only real alternative. As the market matures and competitors start bringing their A-game, the advantage of being the only other person in the nightclub will disappear. Capturing the imagination of the consumer, and delighting him or her with a fully-baked, well-built user experience, backed up by a robust ecosystem, will become increasingly paramount.

Right now, the only one doing it right is Apple, and the only close second is Amazon. Zhephree’s quote, though he meant it as a joke, was spot-on: for the moment, the iPad3/iPad HD has only its earlier incarnations to compete against. For Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and perhaps for competitors we have yet to meet, this young market is a nigh-unspoiled playing field, a place where the only way to win -or even keep apace- is by demonstrating and delivering excellence.

It’s gonna be fun to watch.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!