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Apple Keeps Android Tablets at Bay with the iPad2

The iPad 2 isn't a "magical" update of the iPad, but it's an incremental update that's good enough to keep Apple on top of the tablet market for another year. Sad panda for Android.

The iPad 2 is finally out the door with a slew of updates, though nothing truly “magical.” Unfortunately for Android fans, it’s also still enough to keep Apple’s lead on the market. Apple’s pricing and “good enough” hardware, combined with superior application selection, will easily keep Android at bay another year. Sorry Android and Linux fans.

You couldn’t help but see iPad 2 coverage this week if you went near a tech publication. Yes, sorry, I’m adding to that. I won’t beat a dead horse and recount the features and apps that Apple put forward Wednesday. Suffice it to say that the iPad 2 is no major leap forward for the tablet: It’s faster, has front and back cameras, and it’s a wee bit thinner. None of that adds up to a major leap forward — but Apple didn’t need to leap forward, it just needs to stay ahead of the emerging Android tablet competition. That, Apple is doing quite competently.

MeeGo and webOS? Sorry, they’re not even in the running until they start shipping devices. As Seth Godin so accurately points out, winners ship. The only players right now are Android and Apple, and on tablets Android is still far behind.

Apple is standing toe-to-toe with Android tablets on hardware, and well ahead when it comes to software. Consider the Xoom tablet, shipping now with Android 3.0. If you look at the hardware and such, you might mistake the Xoom as the tablet most people would want. (Motorola did.) It has a higher resolution screen, it plays Flash (or will someday), and has a tabbed browser.

Unfortunately, it also has a higher price tag, far less name recognition, fewer apps to choose from, and it’s a potentially dead-end device.

What do I mean dead-end device? Apple’s control of the iOS/iPad platform has some serious lock-in — but it also leaves no doubt that Apple is fully behind the device. Most of the Android tablets, like the Xoom, are first-generation efforts in market that is still sorting itself out. Motorola couldn’t have made this more obvious — go look at the Xoom page for all the features that will have to be enabled through software updates “sometime” this year. Maybe the Xoom will have successor devices, or maybe it’ll just fade into obscurity if the sales don’t do well. Also consider how uneven upgrades have been in the Android world. Whether you get Android updates seems to depend on where you live, whims of the carriers, and whether a burrowing mammal happened to see it shadow recently. Love Apple or hate ‘em, you know everybody is getting the iOS updates at the same time. So if you are in the market for a tablet, why take what seems to be a risky step by investing in Android?

Think I’m exaggerating? Users are already seeing a recently launched device (the 7″ Galaxy Tab) consigned to the dustbin while it’s still on the market, because it won’t support Honeycomb. Note, this is also why I’ve advised friends against taking advantage of the discounted first-generation iPads Apple is burning through until it releases the iPad 2. I’d bet a steak dinner that the original iPad will not be able to run the next major (iOS 5) update because it won’t have the horsepower. Much like the original iPhone and iPhone 3G that are more or less paperweights as far as Apple is concerned.

The Xoom is unlikely to sell one-tenth as well as the iPad 2. Why? Price, availability, immaturity, and applications (or lack thereof).

Let’s talk price first. You can pick up a 16GB iPad 2 on March 11 for $499. OK, so $500 for the basic (no 3G) iPad 2 against $799.00 for the Xoom at full retail — or $599.00 for a 2-year contract on Verizon. At best, you can get a fully loaded Xoom for $100 more than the entry price for the iPad 2 — but then you’re saddled with a two-year hitch on Verizon for data (or a mere $350 early termination fee). Compare that to the month-to-month data plans for the iPad 2.

Availability — You can buy an iPad easily, without going through a carrier, in a store or online. How many Xooms do you see on the shelves at Walmart? How many opportunities do you have to have a hands-on experience with the Xoom? I had a chance to toy with one for about two minutes last weekend at SCALE (it was nice enough) but I’d have to go well out of my way to find one at a store. The iPad, on the other hand, is really easy to lay hands on.

As a side note, it doesn’t help the Android market that folks have to do so much research to figure out which Android tablet to buy if they want Android. For geeks, choice may be a good thing — for many folks, it’s just confusing. It’s much easier to just go with Apple.

We’ve already covered immaturity a bit. Android 3.0 is the first release that’s actually designed for tablets. And even now, with a shipping device, it’s not yet ready for prime time. They tout Flash (ugh) but it’s not even shipping for the tablet yet. By the way, even though Apple is doing it for the wrong reasons — I’m still glad they’re refusing Flash on the iPad. I hope Web developers are looking at the iPad numbers and deciding that it’s not worth it to create sites that depend heavily on Flash. If we never see another site that starts with a Flash landing page, we all owe Steve Jobs at least a tiny bit of gratitude.

Do we even have to talk apps? Yes, Android has made huge strides in the last year. But most of the apps that they’ve landed are for phones, not tablets. So, they’re a bit behind even with the major applications like Evernote that you’d want on a tablet. (Or I’d want, your wants may differ.) And games? Let’s not go there. Big sad panda for Android here.

So do the comparison: A proven platform, with a cheaper sticker price for all but one model, no contract required versus an unproven and immature platform. The Xoom is being pushed out without the support for Flash, without the vaunted 4G LTE, and even without support for larger microSD cards that would put it on par with the iPad 2′s 64GB model’s storage. Unless you’re a die-hard Android enthusiast or Apple-hater (or both), why would you pick the Android device?

What about open versus closed? I know hardcore free software fans are going to turn up their noses (again) at the iPad 2 and scoff at the closed nature of the device. In an ideal world that would be a major factor in market success. Guess what? The folks that are in the market for a tablet (or an upgrade) aren’t shopping for idealism, they’re looking for the best overall device — and open doesn’t really factor into their equation. So iPad 2 will fail with the free software enthusiast crowd, but Apple really isn’t going to lose sleep over not penetrating a market that consists of maybe 0.2% of the potential tablet buyers.

How Android can Win, Eventually

Here’s a suggestion to Motorola and Samsung, since they seem to have the best of the current crop of Android tablets: Undercut Apple on price, particularly when you’re expecting users to sign up for a carrier contract for data. Maybe this will erode profit margins in the short term, but you’re trying to buy into a market that with an already well-established leader. And offer more than one tablet per line, including Wi-Fi only versions. While I wish I’d picked up a 3G tablet instead of Wi-Fi only, a lot of people have no need for a mobile data plan on a tablet.

I’d recommend doing so sooner rather than later. Apple’s launch on March 11 is likely to do well and look better. The company is pushing people to physical stores or forcing them to wait until March 11 to place orders online, which will help ensure Apple the long lines at stores that garner even more press. (Yes, it’s a cheap trick. Yes, it will work.) When’s the last time you saw anyone waiting in line to get a Xoom or Android device?

I suspect, in the long run, the fleet of Android tablet devices will outsell iOS tablets. Especially since vendors are willing to experiment with 7″ tablets that will appeal to a lot of users, whereas Apple seems to be shunning that form factor. If I could buy a Wi-Fi only 7″ Galaxy Tab without a carrier contract, I’d probably nab one even if it won’t get Android 3.0.

But that’s eventually, and only if the manufacturers get their act together — but it looks like Apple is going to own the 2011 tablet market just like it did 2010. Pity.

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