Apple's iPad Will Keep Up with Rate of Change in the Tablet Market

Apple seems committed to a practice of updating most of its products, including the iPhone and the iPad annually. But will this be often enough to keep up with what's becoming a breakneck pace in tablet innovation?

Apple has a problem with the iPad. While it's by far the top-selling tablet in history, its popularity hasn't escaped the notice of would-be competitors. Some, notably Samsung, have already responded with tablets of their own. Others, such as Hewlett-Packard, are about to respond.

As each tablet arrives on the market, it usually brings with it something new-a capability that its maker hopes will set it apart from the other tablets now flooding the market. If these new capabilities are actually useful (and not all of them will be), then other tablet makers will find ways to bring that capability to their products.

When Apple first shipped the iPad, for example, one of the first questions asked was about the lack of a camera. Then it was about the lack of a slot for memory cards. As newer tablets have come on the market, they included these features, plus others. By raising the ante, the tablet makers are developing a cycle of innovation that could be hard to keep up with. And that raises the question of whether Apple, with its annual upgrade schedule, will be able to keep up with the market, and more importantly, hold on to its market-share dominance.

Before I say what I think the answers to those questions might be, a disclosure is in order. Back in November, I bought a 16GB WiFi iPad at Wal-Mart. Initially, I used it as an e-reader for a flight to Europe and back. Since then, it's proven to be a handy chair-side Web browser, and more recently, I've added a highly useful collection of aviation software, including flight-planning applications, Jeppesen's iPad application for airport information and approach procedures, along with a collection of weather reporting and weather radar applications. I can run my checklist, file my flight plan, check the weather and get into an airport just using the iPad. Do I love my iPad? No. But it's really useful.

With that in mind, and after reading Don Reisinger's slide show about the rapidly evolving tablet market, I think he's on to something, but not entirely for the reasons he gives. The basic thing to remember about tablets is that they're a hardware platform like any other. If you decide you want to add a capability to any platform, you can do it by writing the right application. If it's within the capability of the hardware, then you can use the capability.

This is why the Jeppesen software that pilots use for airport approaches can dim the screen of the iPad far beyond what the native settings on the iPad can accomplish; Jeppesen needed to make the screen dim enough so that pilots wouldn't compromise their night vision, so it wrote its application to include that capability. This is the same kind of thing that you do with any tablet when faced with a new and popular capability.

What you can't do with most tablets, including the iPad, is add hardware capabilities that don't exist in the platform in the first place. This is why the iPad 2 will be getting a pair of cameras and a memory-card slot. While you may be able to add capabilities using WiFi, Bluetooth or maybe the USB connection, not everyone will find that the best approach.

This, of course, is why the iPad 2 will get those new features. It's also why Apple is unlikely to have a lot of trouble keeping up with the tablet market despite the rapid pace of innovation. Apple has shown that it's willing to ship new versions of iOS with new features at a pace that's far faster than the annual hardware update pace. Once the hardware will support a feature, all that's needed is the software to enable it.

It's worth noting, however, that in spite of its ability to keep up with most of the technological changes of its competition, Apple will still lose market share. As Don mentions, the sheer volume of new tablets is sure to have an effect on the tablet market, just as new smart phones have affected the market share of the iPhone. And, yes, Android devices are going to be a major force. HP will probably sell a lot of its WebOS devices, especially in the enterprise. There are also dozens of vendors waiting in the wings with lower prices, cooler features or other factors that their respective makers think will help people decide to buy their product instead of an iPad.

Apple, meanwhile, can slow the drain on market share by keeping up with customer demand in terms of software improvements and by offering a wider range of choices in tablets. For example, Apple can follow its own lead and do as it did with the iPhone. You'll note that the iPhone 3GS is still available, but at a price much lower than what it sold for originally. This means that you can join the iPhone family for $50.

Apple can do the same thing with the original iPad, and keep it on the market, but at a reduced price. This will benefit customers who don't need or can't use some of the new features, such as the cameras, or just those who want a lower price. Of course, just because they're the old design doesn't mean they won't contribute to the market share-and unless an application requires a camera or memory card, the original can keep up with innovation as well.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...