CES: iPad killers, what iPad killers?

CES opens its doors officially tomorrow, and while Apple isn't there the event is already expected to see over 100 tablets from many different firms take their first (and, in some cases, last) bow. Meanwhile, Apple prepares iPad 2.0.

While some hope CES will see the spark of a proper fight-back against the genre-defining Apple iPad tech titan, such optimism is misplaced. For iPad haters, CES will be a tragic tryst, a dooomed affair.

Too little too late

The mantra has to be "too little, too late", with even the world's biggest software manufacturer, Microsoft, playing catch-up this time around. Look at Windows Phone 7 market share -- it isn't yet even a contender in the smartphone war.

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

Oh, but there's Google's Android. Which Android? Is that the elusive Froyo upgrade or that golden panacea,"Honeycomb", which (a) isn't yet available and (b) seems unlikely to actually work on many -- if any -- of the 100 doomed tablets destined to appear at CES this year.

This isn't the year of the iPad killer. Don't believe me? I'm not doing the talking here. Analyst Michael Gartenberg Tweets it thus, saying:

"I have seen nothing so far at CES that I'd call an iPad killer. I've seen nothing so far that would give iPad a minor case of the sniffles."

Here's three big stories (two from this morning) which reflect just how far Apple's already come in terms of consolidating territory in the nascent tablet market:

Strike One

  • New York City public schools have ordered over 2,000 iPads, for $1.3 million. (LINK)

Strike Two

  • iPads are appearing as the menu at restaurants all across the US. (LINK)

Strike Three

  • Gorillaz founders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewitt got together to make a 15-track album on an iPad which they then released for free to fan club members last month. (LINK)

What's the significance of these three strikes?

Huge: together they represent that the iPad is treading the same path the iPod took before it: it is creating a cultural identity that reaches beyond the product itself.

Cultural identity counts

Think about it, the iPod came into a market which already had MP3 players, but the ones around weren't particularly good. The iPod was cool, captured massive mind-share and eventually didn't just dominate its category, it defined it.

Even today as MP3 players make way for smart devices, Apple still retains a 70 per cent market share in most global states. Historically, those previous 'iPod killers' and their untimely deaths proved just how hard it is to unsear a device once it becomes part of cultural identity.

The iPad is moving in the same direction.

Attempts to characterize a 'tablet' category will have to find a way to convince consumers that tablet is not just another word for 'iPad'. Recall that the phrases iPod and MP3 Player became indistinguishable. Teenagers referred to the whole MP3 player market as 'iPods'.

That this history is repeating itself is incredibly important. It shows how Apple is determined that the history that does repeat itself here isn't the much-muttered on Microsoft PC marketshare land grab, but the iPod marketshare land grab. Those represent two conflicting Apple stories, only one of which was, let's not forget, strictly legal.

Apple's market to command

Look at the latest research out of Forrester. They conclude tablets are going to be replaced at a rate more similar to the replacement cycle of MP3 players.

Forrester projects that tablet sales will more than double in 2011 and reach a third of online consumers by 2015. This year should see 24.1 million tablets ship. And yes, they will be iPads.

"Of those sales, the lion's share will be iPads, and despite many would-be competitors that will be released at CES, we see Apple commanding the vast majority of the tablet market through 2012," wrote Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.

She also wrote:

"Although (tablets) are certainly used for productivity, tablets are proving themselves to be "lifestyle devices" at home and at work, and as such we think consumers will upgrade to newer models more rapidly than they would a more utilitarian device like a PC. In other words, we think a significant number of first-generation iPad buyers will buy iPad 2 when it comes out this year — many first-gen iPads will end up entertaining the kids in the back of the car while Mom and Dad get the shiny new (likely Facetime-compatible) model."

Don't neglect that tomorrow's introduction of the Mac App Store will unleash a similar surge in interest in Apple's PC platform, the Mac. Oh, and look forward to a sensitive touch sensitive Apple TV controller one day, capable (perhaps) of controlling Mac apps on your TV screen. (I remain convinced this will happen one day)

What can competitors do to stop Apple defining an iPad-is-the-tablet future?

Ship Honeycomb

Google needs to ship Honeycomb fast. However, that's a challenge -- ship too fast and there could be flaws which could ruin the user experience. Apple's 'antenna-gate' shows how user-friendly the objective technology media is. Arguably, one such flaw in execution here is the fact that Honeycomb seems unlikely to actually run on any of the current crop of tablets.

Dump Flash

Performance on Android devices needs to improve. I keep glancing at reports complaining at buggy browsing or video playback on Android devices. Surprisingly these often come down to problems with Flash. Surely it's time to accept reality. In order to deliver a good user experience, Android needs to dump Flash. It's so obvious.

And don't forget the Benjamins

Competing tablets need to be cheaper too. And look equally as cool. And be as well-featured. And attract a strong and interesting coterie of developers. They appeal to consumers, while being easy to use.

Crucially, iPad killers must offer all partners (manufacturers, developers and retailers) a clear and reliable way to make money while dealing in an extremely competitive environment in which Android partners must battle each other for a fragmentary market share.

What do you think? Can you see any signs that iPad has really met its match? I'd enjoy reading your thoughts, and would like to invite you to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know about new articles as they first get published here on Computerworld.

The author holds no shares in any company mentioned in this article.

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