The next big phase of the tablet market is expected to be in business because employees are dragging in their iPads despite IT managers' objections. Though Apple clearly leads in the consumer market, RIM and HP are stepping up with better business-focused offerings.
Despite Apple's success with customer satisfaction and loyalty, it isn't exactly the favorite among CIOs. While RIM's products play much better among corporate buyers, users consider them substantially less desirable than Apple's. This would suggest that when it comes to tablets, the new RIM PlayBook will be dominant, much like the Blackberry is the dominant business smartphone. Some are discussing a coming price war in this category, and I do think that will happen. But I think HP's Palm-based offering might have the edge.
iPad The One to Beat
We tend to forget that the user rules, and Apple's brand in this category is unmatched. By the time RIM and HP bring out their products, Apple will be close to releasing not only the second generation of the 10-inch product, also but a likely 7-inch alternative at a lower price to respond to the competition. Apple's second-generation products will have faster processors, better screens and cameras, and more capacity than current versions at what likely will be premium prices.
On the downside, Apple likely will continue to ignore the wants and needs of CIOs, which means these things will enter companies largely over the objections of the IT department. RIM and HP are working to give folks a choice.
RIM has tried to challenge Apple's iPhone with a variety of products, including its latest offering, the BlackBerry Torch. It has largely failed to give Apple more than a passing concern. While its products are still dominant among business buyers, many of these buyers actually have iPhones for personal use and increasingly favor the iPhone over the BlackBerry.
RIM's shortcomings include poor marketing and support for third-party applications. There's even a problem with the name because the word "play" in PlayBook runs counter to the business image it's trying to project. It sounds like a toy, making it more difficult to distringuish itself from the iPad. RIM needs that advantage because at launch, it's already outmatched with Apple's applications, product volume/distribution, and product maturity. And by releasing the name and basic product description early, the PlayBook will seem old when Apple does a refresh in 2011.
HP: Advantage or Confusion
HP has two products coming to market: a Windows-based offering due late this year and a WebOS (Palm)-based offering coming next year. With better enterprise sales and stronger relationships than Apple has and a better consumer focus than RIM, HP on paper looks to be the dark horse that could steal this race. However, having two offerings could split HP's marketing budget, confuse buyers and overcome its market advantages if they overlap excessively. The Windows-based offering is reported to be a lighter version of the Windows tablet, which has historically only done well in vertical markets to which it is targeted. Though the cost is similar, it's also reported to be underperforming the iPad in performance, weight and battery life. Unless HP can make substantial progress against these disadvantages, it isn't expected to sell in high volumes.
The WebOS-based tablet, however, it is expected to be similar to the second-generation iPad. That means it will have built-in cameras, improved displays and more aggressive prices. Like RIM, it will have issues with applications, but HP has clearly done better with consumer PCs, dominating that market, than RIM has done with consumer phones. HP also has one of the few outdoor-viewable display technologies in the segment and that, used on either product, could provide a significant advantage. Initially, the Palm-based product (iPaq is a brand that HP owns that predates even the iPod) is the product to watch, but if buyers get confused with its Windows offering, or if HP can't differentiate or market the product effectively, HP could have trouble rising to its full potential.
Wrapping Up: What About Android?
Apple is the favored dominant player because it's more focused, was first to market, and has deeper consumer support. While RIM continues to bring out compelling hardware, it tries to beat Apple at its own game rather than shifting the game to RIM's natural advantages. That suggests Apple will easily beat the PlayBook in the market. HP has a decent chance, but confusion over multiple products coupled with its late market entry likely will reduce its opportunities. While there have been a number of products previewed based on Android, none yet stands out as a clear competitor to the iPad except on price, and price alone isn't enough.