Almost a year after the iPad was first unveiled, it is impossible to deny just how successful a product it is. Apple’s latest quarterly numbers should be proof enough for all but the most self delusional. Recently, however, I’ve been more and more impressed with the number of such self delusional people that have shifted from saying that the iPad isn’t going to be all that successful to saying that as soon as there is competition, other companies will be sharing in all the interest it generated in tablets.
Excuse me… Reality check time! The iPad didn’t really generate interest in tablets, it generated interest in iPads. Some interest in tablets has been generated by all the companies which claim to creating tablets that will be better than the iPad. Notice how they aren’t really saying that their product will be a great tablet, or the best tablet. They are saying that their tablets will be better than the iPad. For all intents and purposes it is no longer just a question of creating a tablet. Now, it is the problem of creating something which can be argued that is better than Apple’s product. HP was quick to notice this in 2010 when it decided to acquire Palm and work on creating a product which could be comparable to the iPad, instead of insisting on the dead and beaten path of creating yet another Windows based tablet.
While the iPad is a nice piece of hardware design and craftsmanship, it is the software that powers it that sets it a world apart from all that came before. The combination of iOS, the Apple App Store and all the software that developer’s have written for this platform in the past year raise the bar for entry into this market to a very high level.
In less than a full year, 60,000 apps, specifically targeted at the iPad, have been made available on the App Store. In addition, all iPads can also make use of over 200,000 apps which target the iPhone or iPod Touch. These applications and the power and simplicity of the user interface in iOS is what really made the iPad such a huge success and what will make it extremely difficult for other players to acquire significant market share.
The bottom line is that the real problem isn’t creating the hardware for a good tablet product, it’s creating the software which can make it a worthy adversary to the iPad. Once a proper foundation is provided in the form of a stable operating system and APIs you still need to attract developers to your platform.
Attracting developers is another serious can of worms. Already some developers that have decided to port their applications to Android have had the opportunity to tell their woes. Android is a fragmented platform with all manner of hardware combined with lots of different versions of the OS providing wildly varying levels of performance. This makes it more difficult for those targeting the Android platform to consistently deliver a good user experience to all costumers.
HP made the first correct decision when they moved to acquire Palm in order to be able to provide the full user experience, combining the hardware and the software that will power their tablets. Research In Motion did likewise when it moved to create its own software stack based on QNX for its future Playbook tablets. If they manage to deliver good quality hardware, these are the companies that will probably be in the strongest position to challenge Apple’s dominance over this new market, if they can attract developers to their platforms.
In the mean time, Apple will certainly not have stood still. While a lot of speculation has been going on about what can be expected from them for the iPad 2, little has been discussed on the software front. Recently discovered images in the beta version of iOS 4.3 suggest that Apple is not only bringing in the camera applications from the iPhone but also bringing across applications from the Mac. Apple has a long history of developing great software and of providing powerful APIs for developers.
One thing that is clear is that 2011 will be a very interesting year for those directly or indirectly involved with mobile computing technology.