This Week in Tablets: Every week is Super Bowl Sunday for tablet makers

February 2, 2013

I live in San Francisco, and have lived here since 1995. I’ve been a 49ers fan my whole life, and this is the only column I write. I am pretty much obligated to talk about Super Bowl XLVII here, at least for a little bit.

On the way to work yesterday, my wife and I were talking about the Super Bowl, and I explained to her how in football, when teams do well and make it to the Super Bowl, it’s because the winning team was not only more talented on the field, but off (and above) the field at the executive level.

In contrast to the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, the NFL has a hard salary cap. Teams’ spending on players’ salaries is fixed. Owners can’t spend more than the limit. In baseball, teams can spend as much as they want. In basketball, there is a salary cap, but teams can exceed it if they’re willing to pay a penalty for over-spending.

So, the fact that the 49ers and Ravens are in the Super Bowl means that they’re the best…on a fairly level playing field.

This is pretty much the only redeeming attribute my wife has found in professional football. It doesn’t make her want to watch the game on Sunday, but, well, it’s one redeeming attribute, and that’s better than no redeeming attributes.

Vision, courage, and foresight count

It also means that both teams truly deserve to be in the Super Bowl. They didn’t simply outspend their opponents and rivals.

In the Baltimore Ravens case, the organization drafted Ray Lewis, developed an All-World defense around him, drafted Joe Flacco with the 18th pick of the 2008 draft, and then in the second round of the same draft, they chose Ray Rice—one of the best running backs in the league—with the 55th pick.

The San Francisco 49ers’ followed a similar blueprint—building around strong linebackers and speed. The organization’s genius moments also revolved around great personnel decisions and sound strategy informing and supporting those decisions. They chose Colin Kaepernick. They chose the coach who believed enough to draft Colin Kaepernick and start Colin Kapernick.

(It’s also worth noting that the Ravens are a progressive enough organization that they give all their players iPads instead of paper playbooks. When questioned about allegations that he had been using performance-enhancing drugs, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’ response was, “I only want my face to be stuck in the iPad.” I’m surprised that only about half of the teams in the NFL use tablets.)

Real-life business: Not like football

Obviously, non-football corporations operate under slightly different circumstances than professional sports teams. A professional sports team can field a terrible product, lose a lot of games, and still make money. Very few other fields and industries can say the same.

RIM (now Blackberry) is an example of how this does not work in tech. In just three years, the company lost its fortune, its leadership, and most of its market share because it didn’t react in time to touch screens.

How could it? Their entire gameplay revolved around pretty much the opposite of touch: tactile, responsive keyboards, and enterprise-class back-end solutions.

Now named BlackBerry, the company is banking everything on a new smartphone OS—BlackBerry 10—and a slew of touch-only devices.

BlackBerry is in a tight enough spot that it doesn’t even have the bandwidth to attempt to revive its PlayBook tablet, which was about as botched a product launch as you can ever find. However, rumors are indicating that this may become a reality in time, starting with a BlackBerry 10 upgrade.

Lenovo = more than ahead of the curve

Lenovo, on the other hand, appears to have mastered the curve during this period of transition and upgrade.

Formerly known as the company that bought ThinkPad, management at Lenovo has hit the mark in terms of creativity, timing, vision—and fearlessness.

The results are coming in, and have been quite favorable. Lenovo’s Q4 was one of the best the company has ever seen, largely based on the success of its tablet devices.

Lenovo could have very easily adopted the RIM playbook. Or HP’s. It could have coasted on the success of its laptop series for years. With tablet sales just beginning to close in on PC sales, this would have probably been a losing strategy.

The favorable results for Lenovo do bring up a few interesting, slightly related thoughts:

1. Concerns that Microsoft would hurt its Windows 8 tablet partners in the channel by launching the Surface are proving unfounded.

2. In retrospect, it seems that while Microsoft’s move to sell the Surface through private channels was an attempt to keep its sales figures private, it’s also quite likely the company hoped to avoid the perception that it was taking the legs out from under its partners.

3. This is exactly what Google did with the Nexus initially, and that worked out pretty well for them.

4. It appears that at this point, Lenovo has sold as many Windows 8 tablets as Microsoft has. When you start adding up all these Win8 tablet sales, the total number (in the low millions) isn’t actually all that bad for a first launch of a new platform.

Anyway, Lenovo wasn’t just ahead of the curve. The company not only saw the tablet future, but had a bold vision for it, and took some calculated gambles around design, form-factor, and identity.  

Evernote is also clearly understands these things. The company embraced multi-platform note-taking and sharing but had a special vision for the tablet platform. iPad and Android tablet versions of the Evernote app had unique design and features specific to those platforms. The company’s decision to release its Penultimate hand-writing app for free earlier this week affirms its tablet vision.

This week’s loser: Steve Ballmer

So how does Microsoft fit into the whole “field vision” metaphor? Are they the San Francisco 49ers—an organization on the brink of recapturing its former greatness? Or are they the St. Louis Rams, a formerly great team fallen upon seemingly endless hard times?

Again, real-life business (especially tech) is not like the NFL, but the more interviews I read with Steve Ballmer, the more I can’t shake the feeling that he’s not the right guy for the task facing Microsoft these days.

Everything is always spun rosy red with Ballmer. You rarely hear thoughtful, visionary caliber quotes coming out of his mouth.

This week, on the heels of the release of Office 13 he spoke to Business Week about the future of the Office franchise, and how bright it was, and how unthreatened it is by the iPad, and so forth. I’m not buying it, and neither was the reporter, Ashlee Vance.

Neither was the tech media. This story got picked up across the blogosphere as Ballmer saying that iOS Office is “unnecessary,” even though he never used that word. This is unfortunate but underscores how the press currently view Ballmer and Microsoft. Don’t forget—this is the company that either fired, lost, or forced its lead Windows architect (Sinofsky) to quit right after the release of Windows 8.

This week’s Winner: Samsung

With a second place, 15% market share of all tablet sales, Samsung must be feeling good about its fortunes. Vision? The company has it.

Since we’re talking vision…and football, a close runner-up here is CBS, which is going to be live-streaming the Super Bowl in its entirety on iOS and Android tablet devices, along with an accompanying Twitter feed, statistics, and more.

I can’t wait to see the number of viewers they pull in with the stream. Knowing this, I’ll probably bring my iPad to my neighbor’s Super Bowl party. Hey, a second screen can’t hurt, right?


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