Acer's announcement that the company would begin selling a line of tablet computers as well as a large-screen smartphone is another indication that Apple is going to find itself under ever increasing pressure to deliver more and charge less. According to Nick Kolakowski's story in eWEEK, two of these will be Android devices similar in general design to Samsung's Galaxy Tab tablets, while the largest of the three, with a screen a little more than 10 inches, will run Microsoft Windows 7.
These new Acer devices will be in stores in April.
It's interesting that the new tablet vendors are hitting Apple and the iPad where it's likely to hurt the worst. Samsung launched its tablet just in time for the holiday buying season, and some estimates indicate that this device will see sales of over a million by the time Black Friday comes to a close. Considering that Samsung has chosen to sell its tablet through a variety of vendors, and considering that sales at last report were over 600,000, this number seems likely.
Acer, meanwhile, which sells electronics under its own name as well as Gateway and eMachines, has a vast array of potential pathways to market. What will challenge Apple is that the new Acer tablets will be showing up right around the time that Apple is expected to release its new iPad version. You could easily find basically similar tablets released through virtually every consumer electronics outlet on the planet in a variety of feature levels, Acer for the high-end, Gateway for the mid range, for example. What's also key to Acer's potential success is that Android tablets will have been selling for six months by then, giving the company the ability to deliver, out the door, a clean, slick and non-clunky version of Android.
What's not clear so far is whether the 3G wireless that's offered through Acer's tablets will be designed for just one network, or for a variety of networks, depending on deals with carriers. While it's a pretty safe bet that a GSM compatible version of 3G will be offered because of Acer's significant presence outside the United States, it's not that big a deal to change out a radio so that 3G or the alleged 4G in the US can be accommodated.
This means, of course, that Acer tablets in a variety of forms are going to be everywhere. You can expect the features to range from very high end to something on a budget, and you can expect that the user interface will be fairly sophisticated. So come April, 2011, Apple will likely find itself faced with at least two providers of well designed, highly competitive tablets. While the iPad will always sell just because it's an Apple device, to sell well it will need new features, tweaks to iOS and the applications, and maybe a more competitive price.
Right now, of course, price competition isn't exactly an issue. The Samsung Galaxy Tab sells for about the same price as an equivalent iPad. While the screen is smaller, you get access to a wider choice of data networks, and there are differences in the feature set. Clearly this has been enough so far to spur very good sales. But with more competition entering the market, Samsung will have to do more also.
Acer, Samsung and Apple are only three of the many possible vendors. There are a number of indications that Hewlett-Packard will start selling a webOS tablet soon. The difference between webOS and the other tablet operating systems to date is that it was designed by Palm, which has vastly more experience in creating multi-tasking, touch-based user interfaces than anyone else. If HP plays its cards right, it could end up with an interface that easily rival's Apple's iOS4, and also does real multi-tasking. It's worth noting that HP will also have to do something about the scant offerings in the webOS app store.
And there's the Research in Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook. It's less clear what the role of this tablet will be. It's possible that this will be a BlackBerry accessory and nothing else. It's also possible that RIM will give it the ability to exist independently of its smartphones, giving the PlayBook a chance to help fill in the business side of the tablet market.
The way things are shaking out now, however, the real battle for the hearts and minds of the buying public will be between Apple, Acer and Samsung. By the time April arrives, Samsung will have cleaned up some of the smartphone artifacts in the tablet version of Android, Acer will have a shiny new line of tablets. And what will Apple have?
With Apple, it's always sort of a mystery. I think it's a safe bet that you'll see some sort of camera in the iPad, probably on the front for video conference use. I don't think you'll see the Retina display that's on the iPhone and the new iPod, if only because a display large enough to fit the iPad would be expensive enough to make the device non-competitive. You might see 3G service from some carrier in addition to AT&T, perhaps Verizon Wireless. But the most important thing you'll see is competition, and no matter which vendor you're thinking of, competition always helps strengthen the product line.