Pretenders or contenders? 4 tablet makers that face a challenging 2012

December 29, 2011

Will 2011 be remembered as the year of the forgettable tablet? iPad, Galaxy Tab, Kindle Fire, Motorola Xoom, Playbook … Can you keep naming more? 

“By Retrevo's calculation, over 100 tablets were introduced since the iPad. However, we defy even the most tech-savvy of you to name more than a few of them,” wrote Andrew Eisner in a recent column. 

If the mere number of new models means anything, the tablet industry is booming, but in fact, only a handful of tablet vendors can claim significant sales led, far and away, by Apple’s iPad 2. We’ve already seen the first signs of a shakeout with HP’s hasty retreat from the tablet market when it pulled its much ballyhooed TouchPad off the market. Dell also quietly ended U.S. distribution of its 7-inch Streak tablet. 

So who’s next in 2012? To be sure, it’s not all bad news ahead. The tablet industry, redefined by Apple in 2010 with the iPad’s release, is very young. There is plenty of room for competition driven by innovation and design.  

Exhibit A is the November release of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the first 7-inch tablet to grab consumer’s attention thanks to its $199 price and, among other features, Amazon’s highly-customized implementation of Android. Barnes & Noble is also getting some early buzz for its Nook Tablet. 


Amazon’s Kindle Fire

But 2012 could be a very challenging year for Kindle Fire even though Amazon says it’s already sold millions of the devices. 

Why? Well, the Kindle Fire’s low price was a big lure and Amazon leveraged its significant marketing muscle to entice new buyers as well as its many Kindle ereader customers to give it a shot. 

The initial reviews were pretty good, but some, like TabTimes, noted the Kindle Fire is lousy for reading magazines and others, like noted usability expert Jakob Nielsen criticized many aspects of the device including sluggish performance. A New York Times article cited numerous complaints about the Kindle Fire on Amazon’s own website and noted some Kindle Fires are being returned though it didn’t give any figures. Amazon recently released a software update that is supposed to have addressed some of the consumer complaints. 

The real question about Kindle Fire’s success is less about the first act than the second. The iPad was well-received, but it was the iPad 2 that really established the device as a category killer. What’s next from Amazon? Analysts expect a new Kindle Fire in 2012, perhaps a 10-inch model that competes more directly with the iPad. 

Amazon can cement its standing as Apple’s top rival with a new Kindle Fire that addresses usability complaints and stays aggressively priced. Failure to do either one could easily stunt CEO Jeff Bezos’s plans to be a leader in the tablet market. 

NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker says he’s less concerned with early sales figures or even returns than how well Kindle Fire does over time. 

All the obsession with the Kindle Fire’s sales volume and market share are totally misplaced and miss the point of the product in general,” says Baker. “The important thing is how many people are still buying it in March, not how many are buying it today. Amazon’s got a business model that needs to be proved out.” 

RIM’s PlayBook

Mistakes were made. That phrase best sums up RIM’s entry into the tablet market this past year starting with the decision to release the PlayBook without integrated email. You can access your email, calendar and contacts by tethering the PlayBook to your BlackBerry smartphone; hardly the smoothest or most portable of solutions. 

RIM says it plans to offer native support for those apps early next year, but this was a big swing and a miss right out of the gate. PlayBook OS v 2.0 is due out in February and needs to wow users if RIM has any hope of jumpstarting PlayBook sales. 

Endpoint Technologies Associates' analyst Roger Kay says RIM’s missteps with the PlayBook tarnished the brand. The company’s strength remains as an enterprise, “IT friendly” supplier. “The tablet for RIM is an ecosystem play,” says Kay.

RIM is easily the biggest tablet vendor on the firing line. But there are several other big names who need to up their game in 2012 if they expect to be serious competitors. 

Google’s iPad killer?

Ice Cream Sandwich has been touted as the first version of Android designed for both smartphones and tablets; improving on earlier versions of the OS that ran on tablets even though they were primarily designed for smartphones. 

But most of the first wave of Ice Cream Sandwich devices have been smartphones with major tablet makers announcing plans to offer an Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade next year. 

Meanwhile, Android tablet vendors are taking advantage of the OS’s open source design to add unique user interface and other features to distinguish their offerings, but sales still lag. 

The only Android vendor to seriously challenge the iPad has been the Kindle Fire which, because it runs a highly customized version of an earlier Android release, is not really on the same footing as other Android players — e.g. Samsung, Motorola, Lenovo, etc. 

The rumor mill is heating up that Google plans to enter the fray more directly by releasing its own Google-branded tablet to challenge the iPad. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told an Italian newspaper recently that Google plans to release a tablet in the next six months “of the highest quality.” 

The search giant made a similar move with the Nexus smartphone it released at least in part as a way to show other vendors how they could better compete with the iPhone. 

Can Google do the same with a Nexus (or other brand) tablet? 

It’s an open question. For one thing, Apple may well release a new iPad by March that could trump features Google has planned. 

If the Google tablet is feature competitive with an “iPad 3” but is similarly priced, that may not be enticing enough to lure away many Apple buyers. Plus, Apple may keep the current iPad 2 model on the market at a discounted price attracting more price conscious buyers. 

“It’s very hard to think a company could leapfrog the iPad, not impossible but darn difficult,” says analyst Maribel Lopez of Lopez Research. To carve out a space as a top iPad competitor Lopez suggests Google and its hardware partners need a “smoking fast processor,” innovation on the touchscreen and browser side and light, durable hardware. 

Cisco’s next Cius? 

There’s a certain irony that some of the biggest enterprise suppliers in the world can’t get a tablet device companies want to buy. Instead, the popularity of the iPad is forcing enterprise adoption as part of the so-called consumerization of IT trend. 

Cisco has been among those top tier enterprise suppliers treading the tablet waters carefully, perhaps too carefully. It quietly made its 7-inch, enterprise-focused Cius tablet available initially on a limited basis in July. 

Company officials recently told TabTimes that Cisco is looking to introduce devices with 3.5-inch to 5-inch screens with video conferencing collaboration and virtual desktop tools. Ten and 11-inch models are also a possibility.

Tablets are not likely to ever be a big part of the networking giant’s business, but it needs to be more aggressive in 2012 if it plans to stay competitive with the rest of the pack.

Android tablets

Cisco like other Android tablet makers, plans to adopt Ice Cream Sandwich, but we really won’t know its impact for a few more months, or however long the upgrade cycle takes. At least one analyst says Android tablet makers need at least another rev of the OS to go after iPad more effectively. 

Analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates, says Ice Cream Sandwich is still more oriented towards smartphones than tablets. “You won’t get a truly universal version of Android for all smartphones and tablets, but they need one for developers that’s more universal than Ice Cream Sandwich,” says Gold. 

He thinks a new version of Android could well fall within Schmidt’s six month target, noting that “Google’s release cycles are pretty frequent.

Meanwhile, other Android tablet makers can’t afford to sit still. The Lenovos, Samsungs and Toshibas of the world, are likely to hit the ground the running in 2012 with Ice Cream Sandwich in new models touting higher performance and slick design.

One thing we know is that in this hot a market, plenty more new tablets are on the way — including the likely release of an iPad 3 this spring and a slew of Windows 8 tablets this fall. 


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