The PC market developed very differently from how the smartphone market is taking form. Because of this, it’s interesting to think about how the tablet market will unfold.
Will it be more like the PC market, where we had one dominant OS (Microsoft) and one much smaller player (Apple)? Or will it develop more like the smartphone market where we have multiple viable platforms including iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone?
The way I see it, the PC market is not a very good comparison because by the time market share was carved up between Microsoft and Apple, there was no such thing as the Internet. There was no web browser. There was no HTML, or TCP/IP. Instead, PCs and Macs ran stand-alone applications and saved files to disks. You had to buy software in actual stores (or by mail). Everything was disconnected.
In contrast to this, smartphones were born in the web era. The first real smartphones were from RIM, with their BlackBerry solution. Sure, the web browsers were horrible, at least until the iPhone came out. Apple truly changed the game with respect to consumer expectations for mobile browser performance.
Today, modern smartphones have good browsers. This even includes BlackBerries, despite it taking RIM about 4 years to pull together a decent WebKit experience on their phones.
With the web becoming the center of our user experiences, it ultimately leads to less differentiation within the actual phone operating system. They can all make phone calls, they all have email clients, they all have highly responsive touch screen interfaces, and they all have great browsers.
These great browsers are now supporting the next-gen of web programming, which is HTML5. The game has only just begun, but we’re seeing a pretty compelling set of capabilities coming out of HTML5 from gaming to video on demand to magazines.
Changes always seem to take a lot longer to unfold than the general population expects (and I’m no better), but I think great browsers + HTML5 will diminish the importance of the mobile phone operating system. The OS isn’t a huge point of differentiation anymore.
If smartphones were born in the web era, tablets were born in the next-generation HTML5 web era. Their operating systems are not a big point of differentiation anymore. What matters are applications and end-to-end solutions. Ultimately I believe we’ll see several successful competing platforms for tablets, and that’s because they will all run very strong operating systems that simply connect the user to a wide world of HTML5 “stuff”.
What makes Apple different?
Today, Apple has a huge advantage. They’ve got more native-coded games and apps for the iPad than any other tablet platform. This advantage is important because it leads to early market share gains.
Also, Apple has best-in-class apps of its own. The OS just runs apps, but you have to be a great software company to create these apps. Apple is a great software company. So is Microsoft. But Google’s software brilliance has been more about organizing information and managing huge quantities of data (Goole search, Adwords, Google maps, etc) versus building amazing photo viewers, HD video editors, or music production software. And RIM? In many ways I feel they’re not a software company at all. They’re trying to become one through acquisition.
Ultimately, I think Apple’s software advantage will diminish as publishers start using HTML5 instead of native development. I’m not saying it will go away -- I’m saying the advantage will shrink. Obviously not all publishers will make this leap, but for the ones who can do so without compromising on quality, they’ll do it to save money quickly be cross-platform compatible.
But then, even if HTML5 levels the playing field on apps, Apple is still left with an incredibly powerful solution set including music, TV, movies, cloud, and devices such as the Apple TV (and even the Airport Express, which I use daily to stream music to my stereo).
I think a discussion of HTML5 and what it does to the various mobile players can get really interesting. Will publishers move full force to HTML5 and sell via web apps so they can own their customers (versus Apple owning them)? Will competing platforms provide APIs so that HTML5 apps and open-standard hardware (think DLNA) can duplicate all of the advantages that I get from having an Apple-powered multimedia household?
Yes, of course these competitive threats can develop into something powerful. So the trick for Apple, today, is to grab as much market share as possible now. Fast. Because let’s face it ... we don’t switch brands because the alternative is just as good. We switch only when the grass is greener, or significantly cheaper.
So that’s my take. I think the tablet market is much more likely to develop like the smartphone market instead of the PC market. If I told you that up front, you might think I was bearish on Apple, because it would mean the iPad doesn’t stand as much of a chance at holding onto its incredible market position. But it does, and I think it will. I just see other competing platforms succeeding too.