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Opinion: Why Apple can’t sustain tablet dominance

apple amazon google ipad kindle nexus 7 tablet marketFor the last decade, Apple’s success has largely been driven by massive dominance. I’d even call it market ownership. At its peak the iPod claimed better than 85 percent of the MP3 player market. Then Apple spiked the smartphone market and initially took a leading position in it. But now the iPhone has fallen behind both the Android and, more recently, Samsung. Rather than leading the smartphone market, Apple currently seems to be chasing it, racing to get the larger iPhone 5 into stores this quarter to offset massive market share declines.

With tablets, Apple started out owning the new market, and it still leads it. The iPad initially held a position analogous to that of the iPod. Until recently, we even talked about the tablet market as “the iPad market.” But the iPad has fallen to 68 percent share (it started out with 95 percent), and that was before the Nexus 7, the new Kindle Fire line, and the Microsoft Surface tablets shipped. So Apple no longer owns the tablet market, and will likely lose dominance this year or next.

So why is Apple unable to maintain iPod-like dominance with smartphones and tablets? The reason is the vastly different market dynamics surrounding smartphones and tablets. The current environment favors a multi-vendor market, while the iPod market didn’t. That also explains why there really isn’t an iPod market anymore, either. Let me explain.

iPod: Unique product in a unique time

Music is what made the iPod work, and Apple figured out how to provide a service that would allow you to get the music on the device and manage it relatively easily. The company then created an ecosystem of proprietary accessories and interfaces that allowed you to move you music around your home and into your car. Apple’s iPod worked natively on radios in hotel rooms; you could control them from your dashboard; and there were a massive number of unique iPod accessories that no one else could match. Smartphones eventually eclipsed iPods, so we don’t really talk about iPods anymore. Much as we look back at IBM’s loss of mainframe dominance, we will eventually look back and see Apple’s failure to defend the iPod as a strategic mistake.

first generation ipod appleBasically, Apple got it right first then, created an ecosystem that locked everyone else out. The iPod became a key to the music lock and no one else was allowed to make another key. At its peak, Apple likely had over 95 percent of the MP3 player market. The only surprising thing is that Apple never got to the even higher percentages Microsoft achieved with its similar Windows strategy, or that IBM reached with the original mainframe — approaching 100 percent.

But that kind of dominance can’t be sustained with tablets or smartphones.

Why Apple couldn’t sustain smartphone and can’t sustain tablet dominance

The key thing with massive dominance is control. IBM controlled mainframes so it controlled the market. Microsoft controlled Windows and it controlled the market. But IBM has never recreated that dominance, and if you consider that tablets and smartphones are hand held PCs, it’s clear that Microsoft has lost its dominance as well.

Currently the PC, tablet, and smartphone segments are becoming very similar. Interfaces are increasingly standardized across all platforms, and connectivity has always been standardized. Applications are tied to unique app stores, but developers are aggressively moving between platforms. And key apps, like the Netflix and Kindle apps, are available on all volume platforms. For the time being, this mostly occurs between iOS and Android which is why those two dominate both spaces but even that co-dominance can and will be challenged as we move more aggressively to Web-based services and can more easily move between products from different vendors.

So, while Apple could still get out in front of a segment — like as it did recently with tablets — it can’t sustain dominance. No one can, unless they can assure lock-in. And the current environment doesn’t allow that.

The once and future king

That doesn’t mean Apple couldn’t become dominant again. After all, IBM did it; then Microsoft; then Apple. Each, in a way, passed dominance to its successor. But this level of sustained dominance doesn’t appear to recur with the same vendor even if it launched the category. IBM was early on PCs, but had to leave the segment after Microsoft’s dominance. Microsoft led with MP3s, but had to exit with the Zune after Plays for Sure failed. Apple did have moments of massive dominance with the iPhone and iPad, but just couldn’t sustain it.

vizio google tv set top box

The leading candidate for the next dominant product is a TV set-top box, and the one that suddenly has interest is the Google TV product from Vizio. Following the Microsoft Windows model, Google — which owns the ecosystem — would become the dominant player in this scenario, not Vizio. Set-top boxes, as a segment, have been controlled by cable and satellite providers who fully subsidize the hardware, making me doubt this outcome. But I see no other new product with a similar capability.

If Google TV is going to ensure dominance, it will have to be tied to some form of sustainable customer lock-in and that, in a Web world, is increasingly likely to be a Web service that favors Web companies like Google and Facebook. So the next iPod-like dominant product is likely to come from the Web, and thus unlikely to come from Apple — even though, as with IBM and Microsoft, we’ll likely find that it could have.

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 authaor, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.