The beginning of this year saw how Apple disrupted the mobile market with the introduction of the iPad, which despite criticism from some user segments remained the sole offering in the tablet space, until just weeks ago. While it took a long time for other platforms to catch up, the situation is about to change dramatically as a slew of competing tablet devices are introduced to the market throughout the holiday season and into the first quarter of 2011.
A major component of the iPad's success was Apple's ability to enable its existing iPhone developer base to start developing for the larger device immediately after its release, relying on them to significantly augment the iTunes store with applications designed for the iPad. This, combined with a lack of real competition in the consumer market and the imminent need for content developers (notably newspaper and magazine publishers) to break out of the smartphone, provided the perfect conditions for Apple's monopoly of the tablet business.
Six months from now, though, the picture will be quite different.
With at least ten major manufacturers releasing their own tablet products by April of next year— including Apple's own sequel to the iPad—and others following down the line, 2011 is off to be the year of the tablet.
While the iPad will continue to lead the growth of the tablet market as other devices make it into consumers' hands, it is bound to lose significant ground as the medium stabilizes. How much of Apple's market share is at stake depends on how successful the strategies laid down by two of the other major players in the space are.
On one hand, Google has established relationships with almost every leading electronics manufacturer, which will allow them to ship the latest version of Google's Android operating system on dozens of new smartphones and tablet devices. Case in point, the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab has already made a dent in global sales with over a million units sold, significantly due to their availability with wireless plans form all four major carriers in the US.
Research in Motion is also making a remarkable investment in its own platform, introducing its new Blackberry Tablet OS to established developer communities, as well as launching a new application marketplace. Not only that, the company has made evident its commitment to breaking out of the enterprise silo with its acquisition of Swedish UI design shop TAT
All this is painting a picture of a new and colorfully fragmented tablet landscape. In this scenario, a successful mobile strategy will undoubtedly require thinking about application development beyond the iPad and allowing consumers to perform activities across multiple platforms and devices.
The depth of device integration required by a specific execution, along with the demographics of its target audience, will place production somewhere between two possible extremes: developing a native application that takes advantage of the unique capabilities of each target device or establishing a common set of features that are available across the board.
Device specialization tends to be costly, as the production process becomes labor-intensive and additional costs may be incurred in the procurement of specialized contract talent. However, by leveraging each particular hardware configuration, accessing OS specific functionality, adopting established interaction paradigms, etc., experience is optimized with a device-specific version of an application. Twitter is a good example of this practice, with the many, slightly different versions of its client application targeting Android phones, iPhone and iPad.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a more cost-effective approach relies on targeting features common to all tablet devices. Economies of scope apply when creating content that can adjust to multiple form factors, runs on multiple platforms and utilizes a common content delivery mechanism. Popular games, like Angry Birds, are a good example of creating a consistent experience across devices, leveraging common user interface features.
Careful consideration should be given to the pros and cons of each approach in order to maximize reach while delivering a rich user experience. However, the most important thing to realize is that with some many different devices entering the market in the coming months, the difference between them will be blurred for consumers. The number of screen sizes available is a critical factor on its own: never before did mobile applications need to account for so many form factors.
Fragmentation is challenging, but can be turned into an opportunity if we are prepared to invest time and effort in delivering a well thought product. Once thing is certain: if we don't take advantage of the conjuncture, somebody else will.