Matt Gemmell

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How to compete with iPad

general, interface & tech 10 min read

This is an open letter to the many companies who want to compete with the iPad. Sony, HP, the JooJoo people; all of them.

Dear Potential iPad Competitors,

We’ve all seen the media furore about the iPad, and we know that this day has been coming for a long time. There’s something natural and seductive about the idea of a tablet computer. Something to do with the form factor, portability, implied intuitiveness and non-computery quality of the thing. It’s straight out of Star Trek, and a lot of people want one in their lives.

I’m a little worried about you, though. Your usual tactic is to simply copy the industrial design of the most successful product, reduce the price, then adopt a pump and dump strategy until your next quarterly financials. That’s fine in itself; that’s how business works. I just think you’re misinterpreting both why people are excited about the iPad (even if they don’t realise it), and what exactly you need to copy. I think you might be on a dead-end track without even realising it.

I’m here to help you. I mean that genuinely. As you read the previous paragraphs, you were probably assuming I was speaking in a sarcastic, mean-spirited Apple fanboy tone - I assure you that’s not the case. Yes, I’m a Mac/iPhone/iPad developer and contractor, and I’m excited about the iPad, but I’m more excited by the general class of devices which iPad represents.

I don’t want Apple to be the only company who understands the potential and attraction of devices like these. I use an iPhone, but I’m glad that there are now many other touch-screen smartphones with polished interfaces, multi-touch capability, desktop-class web browsers and functionality-enhancing sensor hardware. A good idea is a good idea, and I’d like everyone to have access to it.

Competition is good, but only as long as it’s good competition. A flood of second-rate imitations doesn’t help anyone; not the customer, and not even your bottom line. The better you compete, the more marketshare you’ll have and the more choice the consumer will have. I’m trying to take a long-term view of this burgeoning market, because it’s the responsible thing to do given that I care about empowering people in general, rather than enriching one specific company (whichever company that might be).

So, let me tell you about a few areas in which I think you might have got the wrong end of the stick about iPad, and what you need to do to compete with it most effectively.

Tablets aren't computers

Several of you have announced you’re going to create products that you call tablet computers. I think we’re immediately heading off down the wrong path here, at least if your intention is to compete with iPad and grab a decent chunk of the market. A big part of the reason for all the excitement about the iPad is that, similar to the Nintendo Wii in the videogames industry, it appeals to segments of the market which have not traditionally been targeted. Segments which are nevertheless ready and willing, as with Wii, to buy devices in their hundreds of thousands.

It’s difficult to get our heads around the fact that these non-technologically-savvy users can suddenly constitute a core market for a device, yet that’s the case here. Nintendo saw it, and Apple sees it too. It’s an uncomfortable realisation since these people are so unfamiliar to people like you, as hardware manufacturers, and me as a software engineer. This discomfort leads to a kind of understandable blindness, and more importantly can make us leave money on the table. The relative sales and demand figures for Wii vs PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 over the last several Christmases are indicative of that.

When competing with iPad, you have to realise that, to your new core market, tablets are not computers. There’s no such thing (to your customer) as a “tablet computer”; the very name reduces the likelihood they’ll buy it. The potential of the tablet is that it’s not even seen as a computing device. This is an incredible opportunity to expand into a new market, if you’ll only commit to that mindset.

If you’re thinking of a “tablet computer”, you’re only coming halfway, and you’re asking your customers to come further than they want to. My advice to you is: commit to the vision of a tablet, not a tablet computer, and you’ll have taken the first step towards claiming your share of the money which your new customers are ready and waiting to spend.

The tablet market isn't the netbook market

During his iPad introduction keynote, Steve Jobs essentially said that netbooks compromise on everything. What he meant was that netbooks are essentially a laptop with a series of cost-cutting measures applied in order to hit a particular price-point, in the hope that high unit sales will result. The premise of netbooks has proven to be financially valid, and they’re selling well - I’m even typing this post on one.

From your customers’ perspective, it’s almost the opposite situation: netbooks compromise on nothing but price. To the potential tablet market, and most of the netbook market, computers are hard. They’re idiosyncratic, needlessly complex things that impose a daily cost in exchange for offering up their functionality. That’s true of all computers, regardless of OS or hardware. To much of the netbook market (and pretty much all of the tablet market), the only gesture of diplomacy towards the user that netbooks make is that they’re cheap. That’s not a strong basis for a customer relationship or a buying decision.

For this reason, the tablet market isn’t the netbook market. It’s true that tablets may cannibalise netbook sales, at least to some extent. But there’s a fundamental benefit: the actual value proposition of a tablet to the vast untapped true-consumer market is vastly higher than that of a netbook. To your customer, a tablet is a “compromise machine” in the best possible way. A tablet is something that people intuitively understand better than the alien and abstract form of a laptop or some arbitrary desktop computer. It’s critically important to capitalise on this, which leads me to my next point.

Tablets aren't hardware

Many of you have shown in your tablet pre-announcements that you believe tablets like the iPad are hardware devices, but you’re wrong. A tablet device is, in itself, simply a touch-controlled display containing a computer. It’s the top part of a laptop but with touch sensitivity on the screen. That’s not a tablet, by any definition your customers will implicitly use.

A tablet is a synthesis of hardware and software.

If you’re planning to supply the one without the other (probably the hardware without the software), you will fail commercially. You’re not even in the same market. I’d like you to be in the same market because there’s always room for a wonderful new offering and no single company should own any space. But you have to sweep away this dangerously incorrect assumption.

If you’re going to put a desktop operating system onto a tablet device, you’re going to immediately alienate the vast majority of your potential customers. Note the word “potential”. Paradoxically, you may temporarily placate most of your existing customers, but you’re not innovating and you’re certainly leaving a lot of money on the table.

Even if you’re planning to run a desktop operating system with a tablet/touch-suitable veneer, I think it’s a poor decision. The breadth of value of your device will then be the extent of that veneer and the functionality it makes available, and nothing more. What you may think of as the powerful bonus of a full desktop environment will prove to be a limiting factor, and a frustration to your user. You have to commit to the device if you’re going to be relevant in this potentially very lucrative segment.

The greatest success will go to those who fully commit to the software. Your hardware must be good enough, but your software must be nothing short of excellent. Using an OS designed for a screen and a mouse and a keyboard, with or without a launcher or overlay as a token nod towards touch-based interaction, doesn’t count as remotely excellent. Customers want the tablet experience because they can focus on doing the things they want to do, and be free from the tyranny of computers which force an unfamiliar and abstract input mechanism on them, and software which assumes everyone is an idiosyncratic expert in the task they want to accomplish. Tablets are about people and goals, not machines and tasks.

It’s not possible to meet that expectation without designing it into the software from the ground up. Don’t sabotage your own efforts right from the outset.

Limitations aren't portable

There’s been a lot of press about the limitations of the iPad, and you’re probably both frightened and overjoyed by it. Frightened because you don’t want those complaints to be levelled at your product, and overjoyed because you feel that if you overcome those limitations then you’ll have a strong comparative marketing campaign and a shot at the market.

Be very careful. For the most part, those oft-mentioned “limitations” are limitations for a computer. Yes, a computer without multitasking and Flash support and expandable storage and a built-in camera would indeed be relatively undesirable, and vulnerable to competition. But you have to remember that limitations aren’t portable between product categories.

As I mentioned, a tablet isn’t actually a computer. What constitutes a limitation on a tablet may not be a limitation on a computer, and vice versa. The key to understanding which is which lies in user perception, and not at all in technical details. Let’s look at some things which are listed as limitations of the iPad, from the point of view of customer perception of a tablet device.

No multitasking, in the sense of running multiple UI-presenting apps simultaneously. The user doesn’t care about this. The small existing market of technically-savvy people do, but the majority of users switch between tasks without any regard to applications. They’re entirely happy to jump between their email client and web browser and ebook reader software without caring whether they’re launching and quitting them. Indeed, to most people, switching between apps is launching and quitting them.

There are indeed cases where there’s a real advantage to keeping things running in the background, say to obtain notifications of new instant messages or twitter updates; the iPad can do those things via other means like push-notification systems. The OS itself is fully multitasking-capable, and indeed many system process are running simultaneously at all times, so it’s possible we’ll see third-party background applications in future. The complaint about ‘lack’ of multitasking is a false limitation which is meaningless to the majority of your potential market. Conversely, the benefits of improved stability and extended battery life are very real.

No expandable storage. Users don’t care. There’s a 64Gb model, and data can be selectively synchronised to the device. Our lives are increasingly stored in the cloud and accessed remotely, and local storage is dying a slow death. By all means throw in whatever storage you can, but it’s a fallacy to assume that the power and weight costs of a hard drive are in any way a wise trade-off against solid state media in a tablet device, no matter how much storage hard drives can provide. Your user doesn’t really care, and the question is fast becoming irrelevant.

Closed system. This is the very opposite of what your customers care about. The percentage of your customer base who make a buying decision based on the openness of a system (in terms of system-level customisation options, use of open source software or otherwise) is vanishingly tiny. They’re very vocal, certainly, but commercially they’re irrelevant. Pandering to this segment will most certainly damage your penetration into the market. Be extremely wary about sacrificing large-scale appeal for the sake of a tiny but noisy technical minority. The tablet space is in no way designed for or aimed at such users.

The App Store walled garden. Your customers care about ease of discovering, browsing, buying and installing new apps; they don’t care in the least about whether it’s an open system or not. They don’t care about freedoms of developers, and developers themselves care more about visibility and marketing and sales than they do about pure principles of software democracy. The constraints of the App Store provide a unique, easily discoverable channel which is right in front of every user, and it also establishes at least a basic level of quality control. Your customers want everything that the App Store provides, and practically none of what it doesn’t. It’s a bonus, not a limitation.

Equally, there are some iPad limitations which might well be genuine shortcomings. There are two obvious examples which have been widely commented upon.

No support for Flash. No-one except Adobe actually cares about Flash, but a huge number of people care about the stuff that just happens to be made with Flash. Apple’s decision not to support Flash is not purely a technological one (Flash’s graphics performance, CPU utilisation and corresponding power consumption aren’t that awful, though they can indeed be sub-standard), and for the average person there will indeed be places on the web with blue “missing plugin” icons where they instead expect a familiar game or widget.

This constitutes a genuine opportunity for a comparative benefit in your product, albeit a very small one. Remember: people care about content and experiences, and do not care in the least about Flash itself per se. The relevance of Flash is likely to decrease in future, and it’s by no means a killer feature. Flash support on a tablet device amounts to a bullet point, but probably a valid one when competing with iPad.

No camera. From the average user’s perspective, I do think this is a valid limitation. It’s clear to every reasonable person in the world that Apple will at some point introduce an iPad model with a camera, but for now it’s a potential gap. Fill it, and compete - but don’t assume that you can substitute a camera for a core part of the tablet experience.

Don't miss the point

The core message here is that there’s an enormous market out there who want to buy something they’ve only just learned about: the tablet experience. It’s not hardware alone, but the inseparable union of hardware and tablet-specific software which creates a device other than what they regrettably know as a “computer”. Don’t miss the point by creating something that’s only a missing link between computers and tablets, no matter how strong the temptation. That’s a path to mediocrity at best, and failure at worst.

I offer these thoughts honestly and genuinely, because I care about this class of device and its enormous potential to empower and connect people. I don’t mind which logo is etched or printed on my tablet, but I will choose it according to the best principles of a meritocracy. I just want to make sure you don’t take a wrong turn before many of you have even started down the road.

Please compete, but don’t compete blindly. Don’t make the mistake of retrofitting conventional computer thinking to what is a fundamentally new class of device. Every moment of jarring re-orientation of how we view bringing computing devices to market will pay dividends if you’re willing to commit to the potential your customers see in a tablet. I truly believe that you’ll thank me later if you’re only brave and visionary enough to see this opportunity for what it is.

I hope you’ll take some of this advice to heart; I truly do. I look forward to seeing what you bring to market.