18 months have passed since Apple launched iPad creating in one single swoop an entire new market. Several hardware manufacturers were selling a class of devices referred to as tablets, but they were based on Windows, the same operating system that powered the PC in general. The iPad tablet used an operating system that was designed entirely for user interaction based on gestures and touch, a proposition that was instantly embraced by the public.
For more than a year Apple has enjoyed almost an absolute supremacy in this market. Samsung, one of the most notable competitors, barely made a dent into that dominance. Late of 2011 Amazon issued a challenge that was considered by some pundits as serious, launching a new tablet, the Kindle Fire. This ménage a trois relationship is still evolving with no apparent forgone conclusion. Who is going to win?
Deloitte predicted in its annual Technology, Media and Telecommunications Predictions that in 2012 almost five percent of tablets will be sold to individuals that already own a tablet. This represents about five million tablets worth between $1.5 and $2 billion spent by people who buy their second tablet. This is quite remarkable, a historic record for any device. But the most interesting part of this prediction is that Deloitte anticipates that tablets will come in a broad range of size factors, not just the iPad’s 10-inch size.
In the quest for satisfying the huge demand for tablets and for carving up the largest stake possible out of this market, hardware manufacturers will try to fill in this space using different strategies. Some will make cheaper tablets, smaller in size or less powerful, but good enough to do most tasks, or larger tablets for more demanding applications, better graphics.
The business model will change. Currently Apple has a huge gross margin of 24%, but this may be about to shrink to more earthy levels. Currently 85% of overall gross margins come from iPad and iPhone. Deloitte predicts that hardware manufacturers will be willing to forgo gross margin on the device now and recuperate that later through profits made on subsequent service revenues: content purchases, subscription and rentals.
This just highlights the real game in the tablet wars. It is not about the hardware, it is about the ecosystem. The tablet is only the sweetener designed to tempt the buyers to enter the theatre and stay captive to content attractions. This is where the real action is. This is where Samsung is at a great disadvantage because it doesn’t have anything that comes close to iTunes. And again, this is not about what you see, the iTunes software, but about the market place behind it where major media houses agreed to sell their wares. The core of the ecosystem is to have this multi-layered engagement that binds the content creators, distributors, networkers, software operating system and device manufacturers together to the level at which the choice is too good to resist and too easy to effect for most of the potential customers.
Amazon is probably the best better prepared to fight that battle. Google is a formidable player, but it has spread too thin and over the years had a few tensed episodes with some of the key participants in the Android ecosystem. The Google market place is at times chaotic, some would say.
What about Microsoft? This is a big unknown. Its marketplace hasn’t competed nearly well with Apple’s iTunes and AppStore. Zune looks OK, but it is not as good as iTunes. The range of offerings makes Microsoft’s global marketplace look like a lemon stand versus Wal-Mart when compared with iTunes.
Apple forged great relationships with major content providers much better than anyone else. Until this situation changes, the other tablet manufacturers will face an uphill battle because they cannot recuperate the manufacturing costs which will prevent them from competing successfully in this market.
In the end, it is all about content, simplicity of delivery, user friendliness and the positive vibe of the marketplace. This is where the likes of HTC will have a really hard time to compete. Even Nokia will find it difficult to survive if Microsoft doesn’t build a more consumer friendly and richer ecosystem. This is something that I expect Microsoft will improve this year in preparation for an innovation-reboot with Windows 8.
Tomorrow, Apple will launch the new iPad 3. Things will get pretty interesting this year.
Now that the dust settled and everyone forgot about Nokia’s decision to partner with Microsoft, I can write quietly about why I think this is a good deal for both Nokia and Microsoft.
If you have a look around in the news world you will see that all the rage is about Apple versus Google, iPhone against Android iPad fighting the Honeycomb wave. Microsoft and Nokia are off the radar, as if they don’t exist. December 2010 saw Google activating 300,000 phones per day. This is a nightmare for Microsoft and Nokia is not doing much better on the much publicised “burning platform”.
But maybe in the long run, the evolution will not follow this trend in a linear fashion. We are wired to extrapolate past and present events and “predict” the future based on educated expectations. The expectation is that Android will keep growing at this pace and dominate the market copiously. I challenge this expectation.
The fact that so many manufacturers are crowding the Android space is because the mobile computing is really hot and growing fast. Google is the cheapest way for these manufacturers to have a piece of action with zero investment in the operating system. Consumers cannot get enough of it. Apple opened the floodgates with the launch of the iPhone. In one stroke Steve Jobs changed the telecomm space and moved the centre of gravity from network services providers to computing ecosystem makers.
If you browse the media chatter about mobile phones, the talk is still focused on handsets. The reviews analyse new models based on a few hardware design considerations; the operating system is never a differentiator within the Android camp. This is where things are going to be interesting in the next couple of years. A true complete design is not solely about the handset, but about integration in an ecosystem that is useful, practical, innovative, secure and aesthetically pleasing in the same time.
When it comes to the ecosystem, Apple has an edge against Google. One example is that all models in the Android space are compared with either iPhone or iPad. This is free advertising for Apple all the way. For individual manufacturers of handsets in the Android space the innovation process is limited to hardware details and there isn’t much room for playing outside the boundaries set by Google. Each one of them wants to gain market share not only against Apple but against the other Android players. For now the market accommodates all participants and it rewards them handsomely. But the day of reckoning is coming fast because the market has a limited size. Someone will loose badly.
This is why I believe Nokia made a good decision, provided Microsoft will do its part. Microsoft and Nokia can combine their research capabilities and resources to create an ecosystem rivalling Apple’s in a way that Google and the Android manufacturers cannot accomplish because there is too much inconsistency and strategic conflict among all the participants. In the long run Samsung, HTC and Motorola will compete among themselves at hardware level with little scope for value add.
Microsoft and Nokia have a chance to do something different and start a really interesting race with Apple. Nokia has outstanding customer service and it can exploit this partnership best by focusing on innovating this product category in a way the Android partners cannot dream of. Because of the critical strategic overlap between Microsoft and Nokia, it is possible that Nokia will be able to influence the direction of future design. One space in which these two partners can innovate is in shopping experience, such as for instance purchasing using the mobile phone and instant access to product information (Microsoft is a leader in the advanced product tagging). The Windows ecosystem can be developed to create a better market place experience. That is IF Microsoft will be able to support the partnership in a more creative way. Until now it hasn’t shown much and sometimes their effort in this space reminds me of the days when IBM was trying desperately to revive OS/2 when they failed because they could not get rid of the habit of behaving like a massive rigid corporation and compete with a much nimbler Microsoft.