The iPad's victory in defining the tablet: What it means

Apple's view of the tablet is now the accepted model, but one that most commodity competitors still haven't figured out

It's hard to believe that a year ago, the tech media was fixated on the future direction of the tablet, with many pooh-poohing the design of the Apple iPad as too simple and likely to fail for not having all the ports and connections that typified PC design. Every wannabe tablet maker that wasn't Apple showed off designs replete wih USB ports, HDMI ports, memory expansion card slots, and more.

The punditocracy predicted Apple's simplified and decidedly noncomputer design would end up at best a niche approach. They also criticized the decision not to support Adobe's (unstable) Flash as a decision that would keep customers away, and they suggested the iPad's iOS apps couldn't gain user adoption (consumer and business) because they weren't PC-like. A year later, Apple's iPad accounts for about 90 percent of tablet sales -- hardly a niche. It's popular among consumers as a gaming and entertainment platform, among businesses for sale force, field force, an all sorts of specialty uses, from reconnaissance monitoring on the battlefield to medical recordkeeping at the hospital bedside. (Even the pope uses an iPad.)

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But more interesting, its design approach is the one that most of its competitors are using. Take the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Hewlett-Packard TouchPad, for example. They have designs inspired -- and in the case of the Galaxy Tab, perhaps outright aped -- by the iPad, with a similar minimal set of ports and switches. The Research in Motion BlackBerry PlayBook is also stingy in the ports department, though unlike the iPad, Galaxy Tab, and TouchPad, it has an HDMI port. (The iPad and Galaxy Tab use their docking connector for video-out, requiring an adapter, whereas the TouchPad has no video-out capabilities at all, a decision that confuses simple with simplistic.)

The only other major tablet competitor is the Motorola Mobility Xoom, which has the bevy of ports and connectors that a PC-oriented user would want. (The mediocre Acer Iconia tablet also has PC-style port proliferation, but little market presence.) So, a year after the conventional wisdom said that successful tablets would need to be as port-happy as a netbook or laptop, it turns out such devices are the minority. What does this mean?

It means that users don't want tablets to be flat PCs. Consumers have accepted Apple's notion -- or maybe Apple simply discovered this latent belief and tapped into it -- that a tablet is a PC supplement, not a replacement. It's the "third device" -- a notion that ignited much debate within the punditocracy (as a valid question) when the iPad was first announced.

All those tablets, like the original Samsung Galaxy Tab and Dell Streak that slapped the smartphone version of the Android OS onto a netbook screen -- those weren't real tablets, and customers knew it. What was a real tablet? An iPad, because it was clearly different at so many levels.

Because a tablet was something new and different, it didn't have to be a PC. I believe that the tablets that came across as PCs actually turned off buyers, who after all could buy a netbook or small laptop for the price of a tablet. If they wanted a PC, they could get one. If they wanted a tablet, though, they wanted a tablet. Until recently, that meant only the iPad.

Let's face it, most of those "iPad killers" announced in spring 2010 were netbooks with the keyboard removed, thrown together out of existing components by PC makers who wanted to ride the iPad frenzy but avoid committing to any real work. They thought -- as is commonly the case among such electronics makers -- that users wouldn't know or care about the differences. After all, they make money selling PCs and cellphones that have at best cosmetic variations to a market that doesn't seem to notice.

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