We've been hearing a lot recently about all the upcoming tablets taking on the iPad. Whether it's the Motorola Xoom and its Android Honeycomb OS, the HP TouchPad, or RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, the sharks are circling, and they all want a bite of Apple.
For the most part, the latest, greatest tablets are luring customers with dual-core processors, HDMI output, Adobe Flash support, memory expansion, video chat, HD camcorders, and 4G wireless connections. The specs are impressive, and some of them (such as Flash support) won't likely find their way onto the second generation of the iPad.
But as competing manufacturers trip over themselves to out-spec each other, I have to wonder if they're missing the point. In fact, it feels a little like deja-vu after spending the past four years watching companies wage a failed battle of specs against the iPod.
If Apple really wanted to screw with the competition (and tech analysts), it should just slap a "No. 2" sticker on all the iPad boxes out there and see what happens. I suspect the iPad in its current configuration would still outsell all other tablets this year.
I'm no fanboy. In fact, my job here at CNET relies on a steady stream of iPad competitors, and I couldn't be more excited to see this space grow. Still, there are some things Apple does better than anyone else, and a true competitor to the iPad can only do so much with a dazzling spec sheet before confronting the following Apple strongholds head-on.
The depth and breadth of apps available for iOS are unmatched by any other mobile OS. More importantly, since the debut of the iPad in April 2010, Apple has amassed more than 60,000 apps designed specifically for use on a tablet.
At the time of this writing, Google, RIM, and HP have exactly zero tablet-specific apps available for users to play with. That will change, obviously, but there's likely no catching up to Apple's 60,000-app lead.
Building an app store isn't easy. Developers need to be convinced there's a paying audience and equipped with the tools and guidelines to create apps for tablets. Customers expect an app selection to rival Apple's. Apps need to be approved, denied, curated, categorized, and vetted for security risks. It's a monumental undertaking, and it never ends. It's no wonder so many manufacturers are happy to let Google do all the heavy lifting so that they can concentrate on what they do best: making hardware.
Music, podcast, and lecture downloads
Before iPhones and iPads stole the show, Apple had a little product called the iPod. Apple still sells plenty of iPods, but they don't grab the headlines they used to, partly because no one competes with them anymore. The MP3 player wars are over, and Apple won.
It's easy to take for granted, but inside every iPhone and iPad is the world's most popular music player and music download store. The iTunes Store also offers one of the best and most definitive selections of podcasts, university lectures, and audiobooks.
There's always a new, well-funded, well-hyped music service to make people sneer at iTunes, but there's still no denying that Apple's online store is a success. My mother knows what iTunes is. You can buy iTunes gift cards at most major supermarkets and redeem them directly on the iPad.
Google has been working on a rumored music service for some time now, but it hasn't seen a public unveiling yet. So far, Android-compatible music stores and services (such as Amazon MP3) have worked as a stopgap for an integrated Google storefront, but when it comes to music and other audio downloads, Apple is still the king.
Movie and TV downloads
I could have lumped this in with music playback, but I think its worth looking at what Apple is doing right with video on the iPad.
First off you have the integrated iTunes Store again, which is one of the most popular services for (legally) downloading movies and TV shows. You get a decent selection with reasonable prices, the option of low-priced rentals, and a smooth checkout experience using the same iTunes account that powers your music, app, and iBook purchases.
If you want to see your downloaded videos played back in high definition on your home TV, connect up a $99 Apple TV and you're all set. Competing tablets may offer direct HDMI output capabilities, but we've yet to see one priced below the cost of buying a low-end iPad and an Apple TV.
In short, Apple has good video content, competitive pricing, flexible renting options, and the option of high-definition TV connectivity for those with an extra $99 to spend. No one else has yet to unveil a tablet that matches all of these capabilities.
And did I mention Netflix streaming? Apple had it when the iPad launched. Android users will hopefully get it this year.
Desktop sync software
iTunes is by no means a perfect program. Running on a PC, it's a memory hog that seems to ask for an update every few months.
That said, iTunes' ability to sync music, video, photos, apps, contacts, e-mail, browser bookmarks, and notes between your home computer and the iPad is pretty special. For all its faults, iTunes has 10 years of updates and refinements under its belt.
Let's not forget, iTunes is hooked up to the most popular media download store on the planet. Home Sharing allows you to manage content across multiple home computers. Genius Playlists and Genius Mixes take the work out of finding great music. And in-depth syncing profiles for all your Apple devices (iPod, iPhone, and iPad) make it fairly simple to keep a family's worth of Apple tech in harmony.
iTunes has us pulling our hair out sometimes, but, having tried the alternatives, we still can't shake it. Whether it's DoubleTwist or MediaMonkey or Winamp, the device-specific syncing profiles just aren't as complete, device backup isn't as thorough, and the cross-syncing of apps, music, e-books, videos, and podcasts just isn't as tight.
In the near future, there's the hope that all of this device synchronization will occur between the cloud and your computer or gadget. Until then, iTunes offers one of the best methods for syncing your favorite media from your computer to a tablet, and backing up your tablet purchases to your computer.
The number of accessories made for the iPad is overwhelming. A quick walk of the show floor at this year's Macworld Expo provided an endless array of cases, stands, speakers, dock connectors, gaming peripherals--even an iPad-compatible grill.
Apple has a long history working with third-party manufacturers to foster accessories for their products. And whether its an iPod, iPhone, or an iPad, Apple has consistently proven to manufacturers that accessories can be lucrative.
Using common standards such as Micro-USB or Bluetooth, there are sure to be plenty of compatible accessories for iPad competitors. But when it comes to selection, the first-gen iPad probably has more accessories than all of the competitors combined.
Technically, Apple's iPad games are sold as apps, but they're worth considering as a separate item for this comparison.
Games are an important part of the tablet experience. For the sake of humanity I wish it weren't true, but when I see an iPad in the wild, chances are it's because someone is hooked on playing Angry Birds or Words With Friends.
Tablets such as the Motorola Xoom or HP TouchPad are promising 3D gaming graphics with console-quality gameplay, but no matter how good the hardware is, the games just aren't there yet.
By comparison, there are thousands of game titles available for the iPad. Some of them are duds, but many are downright awesome. Apple was also the first out of the gate with in-app purchasing, giving game designers added flexibility and a new financial incentive.
Bottom line: if you love games, iOS offers the best selection and is typically the first to get the high-tier titles.
The iPad isn't Apple's only successful mobile product. The iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch all run the same OS, use the same apps, and sync to your computer the same way, with the same cable.
If Apple already has its hooks in you with an iPhone or iPod Touch, going with an iPad over a competing tablet is the path of least resistance. You already know how to set it up. You know how to use it. You know your apps and media will be compatible. And because you already have an iTunes account established, you can start downloading new content immediately without the hassles of entering credit card info and addresses.
These are small conveniences, but they add up. Google is working to match (and surpass) Apple at its own game, with its universal Google log-in, a Web-based app store, and products such as Google TV and Chrome, which leverage a common Google experience. Time will tell if the Android experience can become as sticky as iOS', and if Google can successfully branch it out beyond its success with smartphones.
For other iPad competitors, luring and retaining users based on their familiarity with the OS and loyalty to the brand will take time.
The iPad's 10 hours of battery life set the bar high for the competition. So far, we've yet to see any one else match it.
For manufacturers, it's a tough problem to solve. Because Apple can optimize both the hardware and the software, it can maximize efficiency dramatically. Other measures, such as creatively handling background applications and preventing Adobe Flash compatibility, help as well.
In the case of Android, hardware manufacturers and Google programmers can point the finger at each other. Google can't be bothered to optimize its code for every tablet that comes out the door, and manufacturers can only spend so much time and money optimizing an OS that isn't theirs (and that users will often customize anyhow). In fact, the more work manufacturers do to customize the code, the longer it takes to turn around subsequent OS updates, which makes them look bad and is thankless, money-sucking work.
The other roadblock to meeting or surpassing the iPad's battery life is the compulsion to out-spec Apple with battery-draining features, such as dual-core processors, Adobe Flash compatibility, 1080p video decoding, 4G cellular radios, etc. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't, but in the end the flashy spec sheet will usually win out. After all, when you don't have the apps, the integrated media store, or the ecosystem of compatible devices, software, and accessories, sacrificing some battery life to juice your spec list seems like the sane course of action.
So, could Apple just leave the iPad alone and still hold the lead position? I think so--for a little while, at least.
More than any justification I've given so far, the best advantage Apple has is that it got to consumers first, shaped their expectations, and essentially set the terms for how other manufacturers would compete for years to come.
Here we are, a year after the original iPad, and competitors still have plenty of work to do if they're going to build something that truly meets and exceeds the capabilities and user experience of the iPad.
That said, it's great to see so many manufacturers eager to give Apple a run for its money. Whether this tablet saga in tech history ends with Apple being humbled, or a repeat of the iPod wars, it's struggles like these that keep us innovating.