Even with Apple's success with the iPhone, success with the iPad isn't a given. The company has left a lot of openings with its first-generation product, which has clear limitations. This suggests that the iPad won't hit its stride until its second or third generation. Despite having more resources, though, neither Google nor Microsoft has shown the ability to compete with Apple successfully in smartphones. So does that change with this new tablet?
It is interesting to note that this new tablet is more anti-PC then the traditional Mac platform is, and many think it will help redefine computing, including me. But with the PC, while Apple clearly started the wave, Apple didn't ride it well, even in the early years. Apple initially was passed by Commodore, which later failed, suggesting its success this time is far from certain.
Let's look at how Microsoft, Google and their relative ecosystems stack up against Apple. We will assume iPhone-level execution for Apple, since the iPad has not actually shipped yet, and assume Android phone-level execution for Google, since its tablets also have yet to hit the market. While RIM has come the closest to matching Apple's customer loyalty and execution on smartphones, there is no indication that it is planning a tablet, so I'm leaving it out of this comparison.
Areas of Comparison
There are four areas of comparison that the iPhone's success has identified, by order of importance: customer experience ownership; marketing (demand generation); design; and richness of ecosystem (application store/accessories/content, etc.).
Apple aggressively owns the customer experience, turning off multitasking to preserve application speed and battery life, making sure the phones stay locked to their preferred carrier, aggressively reviewing applications for approval, and even assuring the buying experience in most cases through Apple stores and online. While not perfect, particularly in the application-approval area, it goes further than any other vendor to control and assure customer experience.
Apple puts the entire company behind a new product during launch, shifting the entire company to its introduction and initial demand development. From the way the product is presented, to placement on TV, to sampling, to aggressive traditional and online marketing programs, Apple is unmatched in the segment in both amount spent on demand-generation marketing and the quality of execution.
Product design is seen as an Apple strength. However it often trades off the appearance of the device against other drivers, such as making sure it owns the royalties from its ecosystem (unique docking) and the reliability of the product (Apple often favors attractive finishes over more robust ones). Apple generally is regarded as a company that pushes the design envelope, but in ways that most return buyers find very attractive and acceptable in terms of risk.
Apple enjoys one of the richest ecosystems in its segment, from the largest application store to the deepest selection of accessories from third parties. This class of product produces massive income from additional sales in accessories, applications, games and content.
Google passes the customer experience over to the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), who have had some success. HTC has seems to have come closest to Apple in assuring the customer experience, but remains far from closing the gap. For the tablet class, Google appears to prefer the ChromeOS platform over Android, which would tie the related products more closely in to the cloud, and Google's strength there could close this gap. But the ChromeOS is far from production, vastly different in execution to Android and difficult to assess as a result.
Google leaves marketing to the OEM or carrier. The effort on Droid, driven by Verizon, showed that this model could be competitive, but, so far, that phone has not approached the iPhone's profit and revenue numbers. Google's own branded phone, the Nexus One, has underperformed expectations in this regard even though, based on specifications, it is a superior offering to the Droid.
Product design is left to the OEMs as well, who tend to favor robust materials over more attractive ones. Without the needed marketing to drive home this advantage, it hasn't proved to be one. While the phones are increasingly attractive, it is clear the OEMs are learning how to provide a consistent hardware/software offering, and the related experience generally lags.
Google has a relatively weak ecosystem. Google is more lenient in its applications, but falls far behind Apple in terms of application breadth and depth, though it often is seen as having higher-quality applications. Accessories don't seem to bridge phones very well, though the Android phones do tend to use more common interfaces like USB that might provide a consumer advantage at a cost to Google.
Microsoft also shares the customer experience with the OEMs and has been trying to move tablets into the market since 2003. They've been received poorly outside of vertical markets, though. Microsoft did create a potentially more cohesive Windows variant called Origami, but failed to finish it. The OEMs struggled with related products, causing it to fail. With smartphones, like Google, Microsoft shares ownership of the experience between carriers and OEMs. That has hurt ease of use and, partially as a result, this platform has been in decline. It's now positioning Windows, not Windows Mobile, at the tablet market.
Windows 7 marketing has been competitive; Windows Mobile marketing has not. Traditionally Microsoft does little demand-generation marketing, leaving that to the OEMs, who generally aren't in Apple's league with marketing of this type. The competition in its ecosystem tends to drive heavy price competition, leaving little budget to pitch the platform and contributing to the lack of excitement surrounding Microsoft's smartphones and tablets.
Product design is left to the OEMs. As with Google, this typically leads to lots of inconsistencies between hardware and software, and excess complexity. As a result, the products are harder to sell, and potential customers often find them intimidating. The only products for which Microsoft approached Apple's level of execution are the Xbox and Zune, and it had to break out of this shared OEM model to do so.
Microsoft has a strong Windows-based ecosystem of software, content, games and accessories in the PC space that also generally apply to tablets. However, these accessories vary from vendor to vendor, and while they use standard interfaces like USB, integration with cars and receivers is far less common as a result. Microsoft has more partners and has demonstrated with products like Ford Sync, so it would seem the company could outperform Apple here, but it has not.
The Apple iPad is a first-generation product and, as such, leaves substantial room for someone else to step in and improve it. However, neither Google nor Microsoft has demonstrated broadly the needed capabilities to bring out a real competitor. Google, with the ChromeOS and a more robust back end, could create something potentially more advanced. Microsoft, which has been in the tablet segment since 2003, brings to the competition experience and a more mature platform, but it lacks Apple's focus.
Microsoft with Zune and the Xbox has shown it can create products that could compete, but only by breaking the model that made the company successful. Google has conflicting platforms -- Android and ChromeOS -- targeting this segment, and you might argue that Microsoft should use Windows Mobile rather than Windows 7 as its platform now that we have seen the iPad.
Both Microsoft and Google have, with partners, vastly more resources than Apple. But if they can't focus those resources at the key elements that make this solution successful, the resulting complexity will once again be a disadvantage and allow Apple -- or someone like RIM or Amazon -- to own this emerging segment more successfully.