5 lessons tablet competitors should learn from iPad 2

iPad 2

Last week's iPad 2 debut offered few surprises, other than Apple's new tablet not living up to out-of-control rumors -- and still there is endless cacophony on the InterWebs. By measure of noise, there is seemingly no other tablet worth purchasing. But, of course, that's not the case. Perception isn't always reality. But from iPad 2 hype and perceptions, there are five lessons competitors can learn.

I present them in no particular order of importance with recommendations competitors should consider adopting.

1. iPad 2 hype is out of control. Make no mistake about it. Look at the ridiculous number of rumor blog posts or stories ahead of the launch, and the even larger number from March 2nd onwards. That's worth tens of millions of dollars in free marketing to Apple. Betanews posted just five iPad 2 stories from launch day (six, counting impact on Samsung), and traffic was lower than usual for nearly all other posts expect those about Apple's tablet. Earlier this afternoon, three of the top-five anchor stories at Google News Sci/Tech were about iPad 2.

Apple feeds the hype machine by announcing a product one week but waiting until another to begin sales. CEO Steve Jobs announced iPad 2 on March 2nd, but the tablet doesn't go on sale until March 11th. It's a tried-and-true Apple tactic for feeding pageview-hungry blogs and news sites. The Apple fan club of bloggers and journalists eat the hype dripping right from Apple's hand.

To combat the hype, tablet competitors need to seriously invest in all-media-outlets advertising. Verizon's Droid campaign -- $100 million of it -- is the model. If you look at Android smartphone shipment growth, a large spike started in fourth quarter 2009, when Verizon launched Droid, backed it by huge ad spending and offered limited-time two-for-one offers. Verizon already is fairly aggressively marketing the Motorola XOOM tablet -- I see TV commercials in prime time most every evening. Verizon advertising clearly targets male gamers, which is a risky approach (see #4).

Tablet competitors should get their products to key influencers for extended loans. Start with influential bloggers and developers in the Android community and then gadget geek writers or vloggers who pine for the newest thing or who write neutrally about tech. Forget Apple fan club bloggers like TechCrunch's MG Siegler. They're lost causes that will nitpick your product's every perceived shortcoming against iPad 2.

2. Perception is everything. Many prominent bloggers are writing like Apple has already won the tablet wars, when they're really just starting a new round. Yes, Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads during its first 9 months on the market, but early lead is no certainty of anything. The tech industry is a graveyard of early innovators crushed by imitators -- Betamax, HD-DVD, Lotus 123, Netscape, Tablet PC and WordPerfect, among many others. Funny, the voices crying certainty also proclaimed the coming of the Jesus phone, but Apple's handset market share retreats before the great Android god. But iPad doesn't have to be a winner to be a winner, it just needs to be perceived so. In business and branding, perception is everything.

The perception isn't just about the device but iOS as a platform. If iOS is perceived to be the winner, device buyers, OEM manufacturers, peripheral providers and software and services developers will self-fulfill that perception. For Android, Google needs to deal with the perception problem. Android 3.0 -- Honeycomb -- is a good start, but it's not nearly enough. Google mobile operating system fragmentation is now worse, with forked Android development -- 2.x for phones and 3.x for tablets -- and the forthcoming Chrome OS. Fragmentation will feed negative perceptions about Android.

Unifying Google operating systems is just a start. In January I asserted: "The most important tablet is missing from CES, and it's not iPad 2." Google should do for Android tablets what it did with smartphones: Release a branded device (or even two -- in different sizes) that is reference design for manufacturers and always has the lastest Android software for developers. Otherwise, Android tablets have little to no chance competing with iPad. The market of Android competitors is simply too fragmented.

In #1, I asserted that Verizon Droid advertising greatly benefited sales for all devices -- that is for the United States. Google's release of the Nexus One in January 2010 was as significant and likely greater inflection point. That smartphone, as OEM reference design and developer standard, was the equivalent of falling stones setting off an avalanche of Android phone releases and enormous market share gains throughout 2010. No one should underestimate the power of Google's brand on a tablet, or the positive perception created by Google taking more ownership over Android platform development.

3. Distribution is everything else. Apple didn't bring iPad to market in a vacuum. As I explained in January, iPad benefited from manufacturing and retail logistics put in place for iPod and applications platform distribution created for iPhone. I already explained the importance of distribution in separate January and February posts (please read them). This distribution advantage is often overlooked in analyses of iPad's success. The tablet was available in 46 countries during calendar fourth quarter, when Apple shipped 7.33 million units.

Manufacturers that can't get shelf space where consumers shop the most will be crushed by iPad 2 competition, directly from the device or other tablets. Of course, with shelf space there should be lots of advertising (see #1).

4. Apple presents a compelling digital lifestyle. It's broad, too. Rather than target male, gadget geeks, Apple is going after everyone. From iPad 2's design, to the promoted apps to the colorful smart covers, Apple marketing targets women and teens as much as it does men. Additionally, the company smartly shows the benefits of using iPad with its own services, such as iTunes, or others, like Netflix. Something else: Apple's digital lifestyle marketing is as much about technology fashion as it is mobile computing.

Verizon's XOOM marketing is too male-oriented. It's a long-term losing campaign. Motorola's XOOM marketing is much better: "Tablet Evolution" or "Empower the People" videos are more aspirational and appeal to a broader audience. They tell stories, too. By comparison, Samsung is doing some really smart, aspirational marketing around Galaxy Tab and also its Galaxy S II smartphone. Some examples, from Samsung Mobile's You Tube channel: "Galaxy Tab Stories: Jesse Kamm" or official US commercial.  The "Letters from the World" marketing video for Galaxy S II is exceptional, aspirational marketing and approach I strongly encourage Samsung to apply similar marketing approach to Galaxy Tab. Tagline: "Don't contain yourself. Who knows how far one can really go."

Marketers should take cues from film directors like James Cameron, whose stories appeal to men and women. Marketing tech products should be no different.

5. For now, competition is about winning second place. I'm not convinced iPad can win the tablet wars. Perception isn't reality. But given the hype, the positive perceptions, the power and lower component pricing of Apple's manufacturing and distribution channels, the effectiveness of the company's digital lifestyle marketing and crowded field of tablet competitors, the initial shakeout will be among the contenders. They'll be fighting one another for second place.

However, the ultimate and more important winner won't be the device but tablet platform. Android can easily erode iOS' early lead if, say, tablets running Honeycomb could capture the next 5 or 6 places behind Apple in market share. As Android demonstrated on smartphones, there's strength in aggregation. Google can help by better resolving fragmentation problems and taking the aforementioned ownership over tablet development by releasing a reference design.

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