OK, so price is out. How about features, then? What if you make a tablet that includes all the stuff that Apple didn’t add to the iPad? That’s precisely what most competitors have been trying to do for the last two years, and it hasn’t worked. Part of the problem is that nobody really wants the alleged improvements to the iPad—Flash and extra hardware ports, for instance. The bigger problem is that, as a technical matter, rivals are having a very hard time beating Apple’s most important features. The iPad’s custom-made processors and battery technology mean that it keeps getting more powerful without sacrificing any battery life. None of Apple’s rivals has managed to even match the iPad’s battery life.
Well, if you can’t beat the iPad with better hardware, can’t you do it with better software? As I wrote last week, I’m eager to see tablets running Microsoft’s fine new version of Windows later this year. But even if Windows 8 tablets prove to be amazing—a big if, considering that we still haven’t seen great tablets to run the new OS—they would still lack all of the tablet-optimized apps that are now clogging Apple’s App Store. I suspect that when people choose a tablet, the number of apps will prove more important than when people choose a phone; you can still get a lot of use out of a phone without extra apps, but what’s the point of a tablet if it doesn’t have great apps?
Microsoft may thus find itself on the wrong end of a network-effects loop, the same position it once pushed Apple into in the PC market: Customers will choose an iPad over a Microsoft tablet because there are 200,000 apps for the iPad, and only a fraction of that for Windows. This will push app developers to favor the iPad over Windows as their primary platform—that’s where the customers are—which will, in turn, fuel more iPad sales. At some point, customer lock-in will become extremely important: If your last tablet was an iPad, your next one will be too, because that’s where all your apps are.
There’s one potential escape for Apple’s competitors, but it’s so unlikely that it seems almost crazy to mention it: What if the tablet business proves to be something of a fad? I’ve heard this theory often from readers who are puzzled by predictions that tablets and phones will grow to replace PCs as the central computing devices of our lives. There’s a vocal contingent who believe that the iPad will never be good for anything other than lazy consumption of media; sure, people are snapping them up now, but once we realize their limitations, we’ll still keep buying and using regular old computers.
I doubt that’s true—every trend in the industry says that many people want smaller, easier, and more manageable computers for home and for work, and that means tablets. But I wonder if the tablet-as-fad scenario is something that Apple’s rivals are secretly banking on.
Because if they really believed that tablets will come to eclipse PCs, and if they saw how thoroughly unbeatable the iPad is becoming, wouldn’t they be running around with their hair on fire? If the iPad becomes the future of computing, the fortunes of Microsoft, Intel, Dell, and to some extent Hewlett-Packard will begin to plummet. Meanwhile Google, which makes all its money through ads, will find itself reaching its customers through a device made by a hostile rival. As I said: Be very afraid.