You can’t beat the iPad if all you do is chase it

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Om Malik of the eponymous GigaOM put into words a topic that’s been on my mind recently. Actually, it’s been on my mind since last year, but it continues to linger as companies rush to show off their iPad competitors, only to schedule their actual launches around Apple’s agenda. That, beyond all other factors, is why they won’t beat the iPad.

In his post, “You — Not Your Competitors — Define Your Destiny“, Om lays out a simple insight: if you follow your competitor’s rules, you probably won’t win. As an example, he points to the current tablet wars.

Let’s take this year’s big news: tablets, or rather, rivals of Apple’s iPad. HP announced its WebOS-based TouchPad. Motorola announced Xoom, which is powered by Google’s Honeycomb tablet-oriented Android OS. There are scores of others that have been announced and/or are waiting in the wings. They all have one thing in common: They are desperately trying to be the iPad. HP couldn’t resist using “pad” in the name. Others may not have the name, but are essentially trying to beat iPad on what was known in the PC world as “feeds and speeds.”

This is more true for some than others. While I think building on the basic iPad design was a good approach, it clearly pegs the HP TouchPad as an iPad wannabe. Less so for the Motorola Xoom and other tablets running Android 3.0, but as we look at the convoluted launch of the Xoom, it becomes apparent that even if they’re not trying to be the iPad, they’re still playing by Apple’s rules.

At last year’s CES, we saw a dozen vendors showing off a dozen tablets, including the infamous HP Slate on stage with Steve Ballmer. It was enough for many to declare 2010 the Year of the Tablet. Yet, I left the show with the distinct impression that everyone was going to wait and see how the Apple tablet rumors pan out. Aside from small independents, that’s pretty much what the big boys did. Maddeningly, the coverage of this year’s CES showed much of the same.

Big companies are breaking out with their own events, but doing little to improve the situation. Launch dates remain vague. Prices cannot be nailed down. Reporters aren’t allowed to touch the debuting product. Why? Because they’re rushing in to show up the current iPad, then holding back in fear of the next one, which is baffling since there’s no profit margin on products that are shown but not sold.

The BlackBerry Playbook is possibly the best (meaning worst) example of this. RIM debuted the Playbook months ago, yet we still have no definitive info on price and availability, nor has it been made available to anyone for a full hands-on review. The Playbook might beat the current iPad in several respects, but those points are completely irrelevant if you can’t get one.

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On the other end of the spectrum, the Motorola Xoom is actually hitting the market promptly, but it’s doing so with what I and others wonder is a rush job. Reviewers are already talking about updates for Android 3.0 and regretting the inadequate timeframe for developers to provide tablet-optimized apps. Despite claims of Flash support, the Xoom will ship without it with Adobe Flash 10.2 being made available later. A promised 4G upgrade will not be available for months and then will require shipping it out for a week. I don’t see any reason to launch the Xoom in this state, unnecessarily risking unsatisfactory early user experiences, except to shove it out before the next iPad.

Whether they’re waiting to see what Apple does next or rushing a seemingly unfinished product to market ahead of it, both approaches are wrong because they’re built around a competitor’s schedule. To paraphrase Om, you can’t be a leader if someone else is setting your agenda. These are good companies with good products, but they should be chasing greatness, not chasing the iPad.

Alleged Apple fanboi, accused Android apologist, and confirmed Microsoft MVP for touch and tablet Mark Sumimoto a.k.a. Sumocat dabbles in all areas of mobile computing with a focus on Windows-based Tablet PCs and pen input. A mobile computing enthusiast since 2004, he pioneered the field of ink blogging via his personal blog, Sumocat's Scribbles. His current tools include a Fujitsu Lifebook T900, TEGA v2, and iPhone 4. Email: sumocat [at] notebooks.com

12 Comments

  1. Todd Smith

    02/25/2011 at 5:41 pm

    Interesting and well-written post. It reminds me of the Emerson quote, “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

    I work at a company that is big on doing competitive teardowns to learn what what our competition is coming up with. But we also know that there is no substitute for (1) knowing the customer, and better yet (2) anticipating the customer’s needs. It is when you can provide a product that gives the customer something that he never new he wanted, but cannot do without once he has it, that true innovation occurs.

    Some tablet companies may prefer to just be a player in the market instead of a dominator. For those, following the iPad’s lead is a decent strategy. If their goal is to “beat the iPad” however, they won’t do it by playing the game of ‘me too’. That path, while it has potentially greater rewards, is also far riskier.

  2. Anonymous

    02/25/2011 at 7:25 pm

    good post. but … the problem all the iPad competitors face is that Apple has “sucked the air out of the room” by coming up with such a fully developed initial product. there really isn’t much left for the others to innovate for the tablet concept and so jump ahead of the iPad’s evolution. some features/services yes, but then Apple adds an equivalent with an OS update some months later and it doesn’t matter. some better specs, yes, but most consumers are not gadget junkies who care about specs – and Apple remains focused on the three key consumer spec issues of display, battery life, and weight, usually equal to or best in class, and advancing those technologies itself every year.

    and then there is the entire iOS/iTunes hardware/software ecosystem that supports the iPad. which no other company has been able to replicate. one notable thing about Honeycomb is that it is quite a bit different than the Android smartphone UI, much more so than the differences between the iPad and the iPhone. and Google is about to further muddy those waters with its Chrome OS. i know they will all tie in to Google’s “cloud,” but they do not tie in well with each other – in fact, except for the browser, they are going in different directions. contrast that with how Apple’s upcoming OS X Lion desktop OS is integrating much of the iOS touch UI and other concepts.

    • Linerich

      02/26/2011 at 11:57 pm

      When Apple “sucked the air out of the room” => Winning strategy is create another room filled all fresh air. Goole…Think out of the box!!

      • Anonymous

        02/27/2011 at 3:58 am

        ok, i can go with that strategy. but the problem with Android is … they didn’t invent another room, just built a 90% copy next door. and tho Chrome OS really IS a different vision, it’s aimed at desktop/laptop OS’s instead of portables.

  3. guest

    02/25/2011 at 9:45 pm

    Yet Android OS will eclipse it on Tablets as the OS of Choice within 18 months. And that will matter here as this is more similar to the PC market, than the smart phone market. OS dominance will determine the leader in software applications, for developers, for customers.

  4. VuLN

    02/28/2011 at 1:56 pm

    Oh nice, thanks for your information!

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