Industry sponsors:
HOME | NOTEBOOKS | Tablets | Handhelds | Panels | Embedded | Rugged Definitions | Testing | Tech primers | Industry leaders | About us
Sponsors: Advantech | Dell Rugged | Getac | Handheld Group | Juniper Systems | MobileDemand
Sponsors: Motion Computing | Samwell Ruggedbook | Trimble | Winmate | Xplore Technologies

« Microsoft.... | Main | Conversation with Ambarella's Chris Day about the state of still/video imaging in mobile computing devices »

April 26, 2011

Is the race for tablet supremacy already over? Many developers think so.

Who could forget Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stomping around the stage and yelling "developers, developers, developers!" at conferences in the mid-2000s (see Balmer's developers on YouTube)? Well, according to the Appcelerator/IDC Mobile Developer Report, April 2011, the developers have spoken and the news isn't at all good for Microsoft, and not even that good for Android.

What Appcelerator and IDC did was survey a total of 2,760 Appcelerator developers on their perceptions regarding mobile OS platforms, feature priorities and development plans. The survey essentially showed that while Android smartphones have passed the iPhone in terms of sales and market share, developer interest in both Android smartphone and tablet apps has stalled and reversed, with both being behind interest in iPhone and iPad development. According to the report, this is due to "an increase in developer frustration with Android. Nearly two-thirds (63%) said device fragmentation in Android poses the biggest risk to Android, followed by weak initial traction in tablets (30%) and multiple Android app stores (28%)."

I think that's worth a lot of thought. Despite frustration with Microsoft, Apple's market share in computers was in the low single digits for many years and not even the Vista debacle and Apple's great momentum in iPhones and such managed to lift the Mac OS to more than 10% or so (in Switzerland it's highest, with 17.6% according to StatCounter Global Stats, Feb. 2011). Yet, the situation is completely different with media tablets where the Apple iPad continues to be virtually unchallenged a year after its initial release. Apple still has a commanding market share. In 2010, it was 83.9% according to Gartner, which predicts that Apple will still hold an almost 50% share in 2015, still beating Android by several percentage points.

Such market dominance of a single company is almost unheard of, and certainly not in a market that has a good percentage of customers who are against the company on principle, as is the case with Apple. Then again, there's precedent: No one else managed to come close to Apple in MP3 players either. Even though MP3 players can be considered commodities and hardly cutting edge hardware, the iPod continues to reign supreme with a ridiculously commanding market share whereas Microsoft got absolutely nowhere with its Zune.

But can this happen again with tablets? On the surface it seems impossible. Hardware is a commodity, and there are certainly more than enough critics of Apple's very controlled approach to the whole development and sales process. But here we are, a year later and there just isn't anything else out there to challenge Apple. Why is that?

There are several reasons. First, Apple not only created a great product with superior battery life (a huge factor), but it also really aced the pricing. After having been known as a premium-price player for almost all of its history, the iPad is pretty much the low price leader. Sure, you can pick up an Android tablet on eBay for a hundred bucks, but those tablets are so poorly made and of so little use that they have actually hurt the Android cause rather than helped it. And like it or not, but the Apple app store simply guarantees a good user experience. Knowing that there won't be inappropriate content, viruses, frauds and cons is invaluable. And having so many more good apps than anyone else is invaluable as well. As is having one source, and not having to figure out what store to have to go to.

But back to pricing: Motorola and others learned quickly that pricing any media tablet higher than the iPad was simply out of the question. But pricing it lower is also pretty much out of the question if there is to be any profit potential at all. Remember that unlike Apple, any other hardware vendor does not have the built-in income from their own dominant app store.

So what can the rest of the industry do? Make better tablets, for one thing. As is, the surveys says that "while 71% of developers are very interested in Android as a tablet OS, only 52% are very interested in one of the leading Android tablet devices today." No surprise here; everyone else has essentially been copying Apple's look and features: Capacitive multi-touch? Check. Slender, glossy, black slate? Check. Nice icons, zooming, pinching, panning, etc.? Check. 3G? Check. Long battery life? Check (mostly). Simply beating Apple in a spec here or there won't make a difference; that's like Hyundai claiming they beat Mercedes Benz or BMW in this stat or that.

I am fairly sure Android will be doing well on tablets anyway, but as of now, the issues the platform faces are very real. According to the Appcelerator/IDC survey, by far the biggest concern is Android's fragmentation. Only 22% of the polled developers feel that the problem is that iOS is simply better, but almost two third cite fragmentation. Too many tablets, too many versions of Android, too much needed customization. In that sense, it's a bit like the difference between developing for a game console where the hardware and software are constant (iPad), and developing for the PC where there are a million processor/OS/BIOS/storage/display permutations (Android tablets).

But what of the Microsoft factor? Microsoft simply has got to know that a leading presence in mobile is mandatory if the company is to remain relevant as it's historically been relevant (i.e. being #1 in every market it enters). But well into year 2 of the tablet era, Microsoft remains in the same deer-caught-in- aheadlight gridlock over what to do. The issue is always the same: how to tie a non-PC platform into the PC-based Windows platform. Windows CE/Windows Mobile never really succeeded the way it could have because Microsoft intentionally dumbed down those platforms, fearing they might compete with the almighty Windows proper. In tablets, that attitude just won't do. Anything that looks like it's really just an adapted version of mouse Windows is not going to work. Not now, not ever. If Microsoft does not get over that mental block, Microsoft will not be a factor in tablets.

As is, the polled developers already feel, by roughly a 2/3 majority, that no one can catch up to Apple or Android. The developers-developers-developers have spoken here, and so Microsoft finds itself in the odd position of having to hope that a hardware partner will pull a rabbit out of the hat. That has never worked too well for them in the past, with the sole exception of the original IBM PC deal. And even that meager assessment by the developers is probably based on the respectable early showing of Windows Phone 7. Microsoft's still amorphous tablet effort may be an even longer shot.

Then there's the next issue. Are we perhaps entering an era where people abandon the web as we know it and simply turn to apps? It seems unthinkable and the web certainly won't go away any time soon, but let's face it, the web has become a big pain in many respects. Websites are jam-packed full of ads and commercial messages. More websites than not are simply nearly content-free decoys to lure AdSense and other ad click traffic. There's danger waiting everywhere. Often, the web today feels like running the gauntlet in a seedy neighborhood full of panhandlers and worse.

Now compare that with the structure and safety of apps. They do exactly what you want them to do. They've been tested and certified. They are clean. And you are in command. That's why a growing number of companies now offer their own apps in addition to their websites. Yes, it's a bit ironic that we may all return to the gated communities that we had in the past (remember AOL and CompuServe?), but that's the way things seem to go. Already, developers interested in building apps outnumber those interested in the mobile web by 5:1.

Does that mean the race is run? Not at all. Momentum can change very quickly. While it's unlikely that Apple or Android-based tablets will crash and burn, you never know if Microsoft or perhaps even HP with the WebOS will come out with something so awesome that the momentum shifts. Decades ago IBM found that they could not profitably compete in the very PC market they had created. Netscape was defeated by Internet Explorer, which initially had looked like a woefully inadequate competitor. Unbeatable Palm lost its mojo and vanished. It can all happen.

As is, from the vantage point of a product reviewer and publisher, I am surprised by a number of things.

First, I wonder why everyone simply copies Apple instead of taking advantage of Apple's weak spots. Yes, the almighty iPad has some weak sides, and none worse than its ridiculously glossy, ridiculously smudge-prone display. Any major tablet vendor who comes out with a product that does not turn into a mirror outdoors has an instant, massive advantage and selling point.

Then there's the vaunted leverage. "Leverage" has been Microsoft's main argument for decades, and it goes something like this: since 90% of all computers use WIndows and everyone knows how to use Windows and there are so many programmers who know Windows development tools and languages it only makes sense to "leverage" that investment into other platforms. That was always the argument for Windows CE/Windows Mobile, and in the vertical markets, which is still almost 100% Windows Mobile, it worked. Now Google doesn't have any leverage, and Apple doesn't have much. In fact, it's amazing that Apple managed to build so much around arguably its weakest point, iTunes.

Point is, if Microsoft came out with some way to truly leverage its Windows position into tablets and smartphones, things could change in a hurry. It's not clear how that could happen, but there simply has got to be a compelling way to truly extend the commanding position Microsoft has on the desktop (and on the lap) to tablets and smartphones. And no matter how positively surprised I was with Windows Phone 7, we're not talking just a Zune interface and automatic updates from Facebook and Twitter.

And where does that leave HP and RIM? HP recently made noises about offering WebOS on a whole range of devices. The HP TouchPad will run WebOS, WebOS has had mostly good reviews when Palm introduced it for its smartphones a couple of years ago, and HP certainly has deep enough pockets to make an impact. Palm/HP never sent us a Palm Pre or Pixi for review and I wasn't about to sign up for a 2-year telco contract just to review a Pre in detail, but from what I can tell, WebOS excels at something that is just a pain on the iPad--multitasking. The lack of useful multitasking is the one thing that keeps me from using my iPad for more than I already use it for, and the sole reason why I still take my MacBook Pro on business trips.

RIM, they have more of a problem. For RIM, the question really is whether lightening can strike twice. RIM rose to prominence based on one single concept, that of providing secure, totally spam-free email in a pager-sized device. That worked for many years, but RIM struggled with adding some pizzazz to their BlackBerry devices, and going it alone on tablets seems undoable. In the Appcelerator/IDC survey, developers were somewhat excited over RIM's announcement that their PlayBook tablet would support Android apps. That's really no more exciting than Apple's claim that you can run Windows software on a Mac back when no one wanted a Mac. That said, it's almost impossible to figure out what does and does not make business sense, and so we may see some seemingly weird niche products.

As far as the situation at hand goes, the developers-developers-developers have spoken. For now. Developers go where the money is, and even massive incentives go only so far against the lure of a successful app store and tens of millions of tablets sold. An awful lot is at stake here and it's a war, one that seems pretty clear right now (Apple strong, Android gaining), but also one where things can still change in a hurry.


Posted by conradb212 at April 26, 2011 09:03 PM

Comments