iPad cannot win the tablet wars

iPad 2

Marco Arment's post, "The Android tablet problem, nicely summarized by one review's conclusion", stirred up some fierce debate here at Betanews on Friday. Instapaper's creator uses an ArsTechnica review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 to diss Android, for which the Mac fan club of bloggers and journalists beloved with links over the past two days. But Arment's assessment is short-sighted. My response here could easily have been titled: "The iPad problem, nicely summarized by one developer's blog post."

The "Chicken-and-Egg" Problem

Arment's reasoning is fatally flawed, making applications more important than they really are for a mobile platform to succeed. I won't bother with a point-by-point but get to the one that matters most: iPad has no killer application(s). There is no software application that people are pining for that makes Apple's tablet must-have over any other.

He writes about the "chicken-and-egg problem", which has doomed many good platforms. Simply stated: developers won't rush to a platform unless there are adopters, but users don't go for a new platform without there being applications. So which comes first?

Arment states: "Developers will rush to Android tablets once a lot of people are buying Android tablets. But hardly anyone will buy them if there's too little compelling software available. So there must be a very good reason why someone would choose any given Android tablet over an iPad, and that reason can't be the available apps."

There is good reason, and it has little to nothing to do with applications.

Typically, successful platforms share five common traits:

  • There are good development tools and APIs for easily creating applications
  • There is at least one killer application people really want
  • There is breadth of useful applications
  • Third parties make lots of money
  • There is a robust ecosystem

In October 2009 post, "iPhone cannot win the smartphone wars", I rebutted the applications-are-most-important argument:

The chicken-or-egg question presumes that many...operating systems fail because there aren't enough applications; that many developers wait to develop applications because they want to see if the platform will gain momentum among consumer or business customers; that platforms cannot gain momentum if there are not applications.

But this reasoning is flawed. It ignores fundamental rules of economics. The chicken-or-egg theorists should ask why do developers wait at all -- or not? My answer: Because they want to make money. The fourth point in my list -- "third parties make lots of money" -- is more important than number of applications. It's the most fundamental reason why platforms succeed or fail. The fifth point --"there is a robust ecosystem" -- is intrinsically connected to the fourth and over the long term is as important, if not more.

I'm surprised Arment doesn't see this. He's a smart guy, a successful developer and certainly someone whose opinion I respect. But we disagree this time, and I think his Apple fanaticism is major reason. He gives three reasons for why developers embrace a platform:

1. Developers themselves use and love the platform's products.

2. The platform has a large installed base.

3. Developers can make decent money on the platform.

I agree with Nos. 1 and 3, but not the second. Making money matters more. He continues:

The iPhone hit the first two immediately upon its launch, before developers could even make apps for it. We practically beat the doors down. Apple didn't need to do anything to encourage us -- in fact, they had to keep us back for the first year until they were ready for the onslaught, at which point we realized that the third criterion was satisfied.

Apple's smartphone didn't hit the second item at all, immediately. The first few months' 1 million shipments, while remarkably good for Apple entering a new category, were puny compared to other mobile platforms. iPhone sold quite well -- and without many applications, I should emphasize. Apple's handset success defied the chicken-and-egg scenario that assumes adopters won't come without applications. They did. Meanwhile, Apple didn't deliver its true iOS applications development platform until nearly a year after iPhone sales started.

Natural User Interface is Why

Betanews founder Nate Mook started the Arment discussion here late Friday, with colleague Tim Conneally joining in. Tim and I have both used Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Honeycomb, the Android flavor for tablets -- and we've written reviews (his and mine); we both own iPads, too. I repeatedly asked Nate what is iPad's killer application?

The mobile Web could be one killer application, and Android and iOS share similar capabilities there -- both using WebKit browsers. There, Android's experience could be argued to be better because of Google search and related mobile utilities. Apple's smartphone sold well without a killer application, as did Android handsets later on. Yet Android has eclipsed iOS on smartphones, with, initially, many fewer applications. Android phone shipments grew by 888 percent last year, according to Gartner.

User experience is the answer to the question. There is no one killer application, or even thousands. But there is killer UX, which today I am formally replacing as the second item on my list of reasons why platforms succeed: "There is a killer user experience that people want to enjoy." Apple got UX right in 2007, delivering a far superior smartphone experience than every other competitor. But Google and its handset manufacturing partners easily copied Apple's UX approach, and they're doing so again with tablets. That's a conclusion Tim and I reached from actually using Galaxy Tab 10.1, Honeycomb and iPad.

The platform chicken-and-egg concept outlined above is in some respects outdated -- based on two earlier computer eras defined by mainframes and PCs. But mobile devices are more personal than PCs, hence making UX hugely important. People hold smartphones and tablets, they interact using their fingers. The experience is tactile and personal -- intimate -- in ways PCs are not. It's why iPhone could succeed even before there were any applications other than what Apple shipped on the handset.

Microsoft is right to make natural user interfaces a top research-and-development priority. Intimacy can sell other products, too, as Xbox Kinect demonstrates. Anywhere where you are the user interface, there UX will be more intimate. That's good for sales, and with products like Kinect, for creating new application development platforms. For adopters, UX is key. For developers, it's making money.

Something else: The potential size of the mobile device market is simply enormous, and economies of scale hugely affect how much (or how little) developers can make even on lower volumes. There are 5 billion mobile phone subscribers in the world, according to United Nations. Gartner says 1.6 billion handsets were sold last year, while IDC predicts 1 billion smartphones will ship in 2015.

Scale is what drives many developers to Android, and more consumers to adopt handsets running the operating system -- there cellular carriers' enormous retail distribution and marketing infrastructures are hugely important; it's an established ecosystem, regardless of applications, and it sold billions of cell phones long before there were third-party apps for them.

Android benefits more from scale -- third-parties making money and breadth of the ecosystem -- than it does number (or even quality) of the applications. Google is in strong position to leverage the economies of scale Android is achieving in the handset market to media tablets, which, I should emphasize, is still a relatively small market. Gartner predicts just 68.9 million tablet sales this year.

It's inevitable the economies of scale for handsets will spill over to tablets. That's exactly what happened with Apple, iPad benefitting from applications, manufacturing and distribution logistics, brand affinity and marketing already established for iPhone. The economies of scale are larger for Android because the handset ecosystem is so much larger.

However, I've been stating since 2006 that synchronization is the killer application for the connected world. Google got sync right with Android. Apple is looking to catch up and go further with iCloud. Sync is the killer app that could be decisive for iOS following its autumn release -- and it directly relates to improving the user experience, regardless the number of third-party applications.

If third parties make money, they will develop more applications for Android tablets. Google and its partners simply must get the user experience right -- and it's almost there with Honeycomb. As Android on smartphones demonstrated, the UX only needs to be good enough for people to buy and for a broad ecosystem to thrive -- whether there is one killer software application, many or none. The traditional chicken-and-egg scenario simply doesn't apply here.

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