Opinion: Are Tablet Users Stuck With Apple?

I was challenged to write a column about Apple's control of the tablet market as a result of my previous Android opinion column. So here goes... I seem to have written an awful lot about tablets in the past two weeks. If you've not read them before, the first column is here, and the rebuttal is here. I'll still be here when you get back.

The specific quote -- it was one of the earliest comments on the piece -- challenged me to --

do one about how if you go with Apple, you’re stuck with them, their offering of form factor and their 30% cut.”

Before I start, I've got to stress again; this isn't a personal attack; it's my opinion and analysis of that quote and challenge.

I'm going to break this one down to address it, as there's multiple issues to cover.

I should state my position here for anyone coming in late; if I'm using a tablet on a day to day basis, I'm more likely to reach for my iPad 2 than anything else; I've also got within reach a Motorola Xoom, a Blackberry PlayBook and a Telstra T-Touch Tab. I offered to buy the review HP TouchPad I had at the time of the fire sale from HP, but they wanted it back instead of getting money for it. Quite why baffles me, but there you go. Back to the challenge at hand.

Apple only offers one form factor, that being a 9.7-inch tablet. So what? By and large to date, so have all the Android tablet manufacturers, with the specific and notable exception of Samsung. By and large to date, they've also tended to veer more towards the 10-inch (roughly) form factor in any case. Of those who have made 7" tablets, there's been little that's been genuinely impressive. The original Galaxy Tab was a decent but not great tablet that cost way too much for what it offered at launch. The Viewsonic tablet wasn't terribly well built. Dell's 5" Streak couldn't decide if it was a phone or a tablet, and very few folk (especially in Australia) bought one. Acer's Iconia is decent, but yet again it's been well worth waiting for the price to drop, especially given the silly launch pricing we've seen for the A100. Honestly, if you asked me what the best 7" tablet to hit the market to date has been, I'd answer the Blackberry Playbook, if only because the fundamental engineering is exceptionally good and the operating system is slick. It's a pity, though, that there's only a handful of apps for it, and it still lacks an internal email client.

I'm sure RIM's tired of journalists telling them this, but get on with it!

Ahem. Anyway, yes, you are indeed stuck with Apple's choice of form factor if you choose to buy an iPad, at least for the time being. I don't see that as all that big an issue, because to date there haven't been any really stunning 7" tablets at the right price. I don't see a big market for the plus-10-inch tablet for the time being, unless we all suddenly evolve much larger bodies and longer arms. If that did suddenly happen, the size of produced tablets would arguably be amongst the least of our worries.

I should deal with the Samsung issue, however, as amongst the tablet manufacturers, it stands out as the creator of the most variety of Android tablet options -- or at least would do were it not tied up in court with Apple.

Don't misunderstand me; I'd much rather have the variety of choice in the market, and I won't entirely defend Apple on this particular case. At the same time, however, and without having had specific access to Samsung's newer tablets such as the Note, it's not as though Samsung's done a whole lot that's genuinely impressive in the tablet space. The original Galaxy Tab was an iPad competitor at a high price with an operating system that was woefully underprepared for Tablet life. The Tab 10.1v was clunky, and at least in my hands, rather crash-prone. The Tab 10.1 does look like it could break that curse -- but we'll have to wait and see if it can break free of the courts first. Having spent plenty of time with the various Honeycomb tablets on offer to date, I'd still say that the issues surrounding Honeycomb-suitable apps are a more significant barrier to adoption. But ultimately, I'm still unconvinced that form factor -- at least when it comes to screen size -- is that big an issue.

As to being 'stuck' with Apple, there's a couple of ways to interpret that. If you mean that there aren't any other providers of iOS tablets, then yeah, you're totally correct. The last time Apple licensed out its IP, it went astonishingly close to broke. You can line up your "I hope Apple DOES go broke" responses now, but it won't make that much of a difference; there's more odds of me being unanimously named the world's most handsome man than there is of Apple going down the licensed track. If you're talking about being stuck within the App store ecosystem and iOS devices generally, you're absolutely spot on correct.

But the exact same thing is true for Android. It's not like you can take Android Apps and put them on a Windows Phone 7 device, or take Windows Phone 7 apps and run them on a WebOS device -- not that you can get new WebOS devices anyway. The closed ecosystem is something the other vendors seriously aspire to, not shirk away from. It's why the Blackberry Playbook relies on an actual Blackberry smartphone for its email, to lock you into the system. It's why most Android tablet vendors have opted to add their own apps, music stores, readers and app stores to the stock Android experience. They'd all like a closed and more profitable ecosystem and pretending otherwise is folly.

What then, of Apple's horrid 30 per cent cut?

Seriously, that's something that's only of peripheral interest at a consumer level. I totally understand from a developer's point of view how having to hand over 30% of your earnings to Apple in return for App store listing (or in-app purchase) would sting. We're all only human, and by and large most of us would rather keep more, rather than less cash.

But I'm not a developer. Statistically speaking, most of you probably aren't iOS (or Android, or whatever) developers. You're consumers, and tablets are, above all else, consumption devices. Does it particularly matter if, of the 99c you paid for Jetpack Joyride, 29.7c of it goes to Apple? That's a business matter between Apple and its developers, and the dominant market position of the iPad -- a market that, no matter what your choice of Tablet, it's clear that Apple built up consumer interest in itself -- means that developers have flocked to it in order to strike it rich. At a consumer that's good news if you own an iPad; there's fierce price competition and (by and large) the price of apps on iOS are lower than on any other platform, especially with the prevalance of 'free app' days as a promotional tool.