The iPad is the current gold standard in tablets, but it is flawed. All products are, which is why we go back and buy newer versions. The goal of iPad challengers should be to create the impression that they are a better evolutionary step than the next iPad. This coming quarter will be the most dramatic yet, with what amounts to a World War between Apple’s iPad, Microsoft’s Surface and Google’s Nexus Tablets. This is a signature fight for all three global firms, and that means the battle is likely to get ugly.
Microsoft and Google have gone down very different paths. Microsoft has split its approach between ARM and x86, retained the iPad’s size and price, but decided its capability needs work. Google is arguing that the capability is fine, but the size and price needs work. These very different approaches are both designed to destroy the impression that the iPad is the gold standard. They are also not mutually exclusive, because outside of most Apple products (the iPod being the huge exception), we generally aren’t the one-size-fits-all market that Apple sells to. It’s entirely possible that Google or Microsoft could lure Apple fans away and together take the iPad out of the dominant position. Clearly, given how much Google and Microsoft hate each other, this would be an accidental outcome.
Let’s look at these two coming options, and even explore which might hold more appeal for you than an iPad.
Surface tablets: The productive choice
Microsoft is on the most difficult path of all three. While it has positioned the Surface as a productivity tool, both smartphones and tablets are usually handicapped in productivity by their size. Historically, the market has rejected laptops below 12 inches, and it isn’t until 13.3 inches that you get to significant market share numbers. Coming out with a 10-inch tablet targeted at higher productivity therefore has a natural barrier: the screen. You can put the software on it that will make the device more useful, but the screen size itself may limit that use. However, these standards are malleable. It was long thought that 3.5 inches would be the largest screen size you could put on a phone. That remains where the iPhone is today, but it is currently being outsold by phones that have screen sizes of up to 5 inches, suggesting that limitations at the other end of the mobile market are moving.
Resolutions are improving as well, so you can get far more on a smaller screen now than you could a decade ago, when the market first rejected sub-12-inch products. People are increasingly trying to leave their laptops behind and taking their iPads on the road as their only productivity tools. Particularly for this last group, Microsoft’s approach may provide a more compelling offering, because these folks will be able to do more of what they want to do with a Surface than what they can do with an iPad. (This is assuming Apple doesn’t anticipate this move and put stronger productivity tools on the iPad.)
As the gold standard, the iPad only has to be “good enough.” As the challenger, Microsoft’s products will need to be significantly better. Office could do that, but likely only if it is optimized for tablets, which it currently is not.
Nexus tablets: Combining entertainment and value
Microsoft’s path may be tough, but Google’s path isn’t much easier. The 7-inch form factor that Google chose for the Nexus tablet has created a graveyard of products, because it is too large for a smartphone but still doesn’t render Web pages very well. It has played well for e-books, and it was in the most common size for portable DVD players for a while (largely due to screen cost). It does have some big advantages — the cost advantage I noted before — and it fits nicely in a purse and some jacket pockets. A 10-inch product can’t do either as well or at all. However, on the entertainment path, Apple has a huge lead in terms of the number and quality of apps, better profits for the app developers to date, and deeper content.
On the other hand, most of the independent content providers support multiple platforms, and Android is the second platform they are mostly likely to choose. Music services like Slacker and Pandora are often seen as better than iTunes for regular listening, and Amazon’s music service is generally perceived as better for music and media purchases. Netflix is favored for video content, followed by Hulu Plus, and all of these are available on both Android and the iOS — suggesting that played right, Google could appear to be near content parity. Games are likely better played on a smaller device, due to arm fatigue, but Apple likely will maintain an advantage here in terms of breadth of content. As we saw with the Xbox and Halo, one major cool game can eclipse sheer volume, and Google does appear to be focused on finding that one hit game.
And at $200, as we saw with the Kindle Fire last year, people are far more willing to give a product like this as a gift. That could spike Google’s sales in the fourth quarter.
Individually and on paper, the new Google Nexus Tablet has better odds than Microsoft’s Surface, largely because it is built around the proven Kindle Fire model. However, its risk likely comes from the same direction: Amazon is expected to refresh the Fire, and now has a year of learning in its favor, plus a revenue-subsidy model. Microsoft doesn’t have the Amazon problem, but it has the more difficult problem of convincing people that the iPad is not adequate. In the past, Microsoft’s marketing efforts against Apple have been both too timid, and underfunded. Historically, at least since Steve Ballmer has been running the company, Microsoft hasn’t played to win. It will lose here yet again unless that behavior is corrected.
Collectively, these vendors (plus Amazon) will create a difficult quarter for the iPad, which still largely sells to folks who are chasing the latest shiny object. Many may find one of these alternatives shinier than the iPad. It’ll make for an interesting, if not dramatic, quarter. Like the A&E network, the consumer electronics market knows drama, and will be shoveling up a ton of it in the second half.
Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.