Can no one match Apple's iPad 2 ecosystem?

By Jonny Evans

The Apple [AAPL] iPod taught us that part of delivering strong growth and maintaining interest in a product demands a healthy third-party market, and the explosion of products already revealed for the iPad 2 confirms that Apple is well on its way to developing that 'magical' device's very own supporting ecosystem. No one else has this. Only recently announced, the invasion of the iPad bodystashers has already begun.

[ABOVE: Apple's own magnetic iPad 2 cover is just the thin end of a very large accessories wedge for the hottest tablet in town.]

Think about the volumes here. (I read something recently that confused a few thousand sales with a few million sales of another product in the same category and described them both as 'volume sales'. They aren't.)

Apple allegedly plans 21.5-24 million iPad 2 sales in the second half of this year, with an additional 12 million planned in the first quarter alone. How can accessory designers deny themselves a chance to grab a slice of this action?

[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.]

It's a good business. Think about it: Compared to other platforms - where you may one day perhaps have similar sales volumes, but of a dizzying array of different-shaped devices, Apple's iPad lets third party makers focus on just one form factor. That's a business they can't resist. Why take risks for devices which aren't ubiquitous?

Apple's third party advantage

I researched the industry for tablet accessories across the last few weeks, and found there's plenty of these things available for Apple's tablets and some available for the Galaxy Tab. Sure, HP, RIM and Samsung (among others) will be manufacturing their own tablet add-ons for their own tablets, but Apple has a clear third party advantage.

Look to the iPad 2. It isn't available yet, but third party device makers are already getting involved.

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UK firm Proporta has announced an impressive 17 new iPad 2 products (two above). These include 15 different protective cases (leather, silicone, hard and soft cases) and two Advanced Screen Protectors, "a record number of announcements for one device from Proporta," the company said. These will ship in four weeks time.

Proporta's Guy Monson said, "It's great to see magnets being used in the new iPad to switch the device on and off. Proporta will certainly be making use of that functionality in our new line-up of cases and accessories."

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Popular US accessories manufacturer, iSkin, has also wasted little time bringing its colorful range of solutions to this soon to be exploding market.

"iSkin's award-winning, fashionable lineup of sleeves and slings, part of the Q.West Collection, are compatible and immediately available for the Apple iPad 2," the company has said. "iSkin is also adapting the popular Duo, Vu and multi-functional aura folio to be compatible with the new tablet."

Marware's C.E.O. Hybrid for iPad 2 is now available for pre-order. This features a protective lid which doubles as a stand and adjusts at multiple angles for different usages.

Cygnett announced its range of iPad 2 cases yesterday, these are previous designs adapted for use with the new iPad, as well as new ranges.

Mark Rogers, General Manager, Cygnett UK, said in a release: "I'm really excited about our new range of iPad 2 cases. We've concentrated the range around our best products from the original iPad range and improved on these with better materials and greater functionality."

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Beyond cases, veteran audio and accessories manufacturer, Scosche, has already launched its new iPad 2 range with three new cases, a waterproof Bluetooth mini keyboard and a variety of new charging options.

(I'm quite taken with the freeKEY water resistant Bluetooth keyboard. Like any Bluetooth device it has a potential maximum range of up to 30 feet. It also rolls up for storage and boasts a retractable USB cable for charging.)

Take a look at Booq's Booqpad -- this combines a nice leather protective iPad 2 case with a notebook and pen -- after all, sometimes a notebook and pen is actually what you need. This wallet includes a business card holder, and little pocket for all your bits and pieces. It's like a filofax for the digital natives.

iLuv has also joined in, offering up a range of four different cases and a unique charging dock which is equipped with a multi-directional arm so you can set things up for the best screen orientation and keyboard angle. (Or use it with a Bluetooth keyboard, if you need a keyboard).

Naked truth

All this third-party accessory activity underlines Apple's advantage and frustrates its imitative competitors.

Look, I recognise I have critics. I recognise they want me to say everything is wonderful in the non-Apple ecosystem, but let's be realistic about it, the sad facts are that everything isn't wonderful in the non-Apple ecosystem.

For example, there isn't really a non-Apple third party ecosystem. The truth is that until a similarly burgeoning third-party accessories market evolves for other tablets then we're not looking at anything like serious competition. It has a hegemonic effect, after all -- each iPad-compatible device sold is one less consumer seeking an alternative tablet. Granted, the Samsung Tab has achieved some traction, but it is the only non-Apple tablet to have achieved this so far.

Other tablets will apparently reach the shops in the coming weeks. Some may even be succesful in reaching the mass consumer market. One or two might even capture a little consumer imagination. However, until they have achieved real market volumes they will lack the attractive aura that's created by a busy third party business.

Can Apple maintain its empire?

This success breed success effect is happening all across Apple partners, component suppliers, contracted manufacturers, App developers...

There is one chink of hope: some upstream component suppliers refused to join in with the iPad 2 because the move to miniaturize the device meant they would have had to make major r&d investments to deliver what Apple required, while at the same time Apple refused to share the risk of such investments.

It is possible Apple -- notorious for using the scale of its orders to secure more affordable deals -- will need to be a little more generous with suppliers if it wants to keep them. Though that's a good problem to have.

In conclusion: There's a lot of expectation Apple's iPad market share will fall this year, as the industry becomes more populated.

This makes some sense, but the evolution of a healthy and robust third party accessory business will be a determinant to the evolution of a strong competitor hoping to mount a serious long-term threat to Apple's growing iPower.

However, the perceived lack of such a wider supporting cast will leave most competitors facing a huge credibility gap. That's my opinion.

Please do debate this in comments below, and I'd be most pleased if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I could let you know when new reports get published here first on Computerworld.  

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