Would-Be iPad Rivals Well Behind the Curve: Gartner

There was a parade of tablet prototypes and demos at the recent Computex show in Taiwan, a conference attended by every major and minor OEM and original design manufacturer (ODM) in Asia.

And "not a one" impressed Gartner analyst Christian Heidarson. He thinks Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has at least a two-year lead on the competition when it comes to tablets.

"I think that there was a lot of hardware there that was close, but from a software point of view, it doesn't look like that the Android-based or Meego-based devices will be anywhere near able to compete with iOS any time soon," he told InternetNews.com.

As for the hardware, there are very powerful embedded CPUs on the market, like Nvidia's Tegra 2 line. The problem is the software interface, which has always been Apple's strength. The hardware it uses is rarely bleeding edge, but it engineers the interface and applications to hide all complexity from the user.

It's hard to argue with the results. Apple sold 2 million iPads in two months of availability and demand is outpacing supply. Market analysts are raising their sales projections for the device monthly.

Heidarson expects Apple will have until at least the end of 2011 before the vendors come close to the iOS experience.

"I would expect maybe by Christmas next year they might be similar a experience to what iPad has today, but of course from what we've seen from experience is Apple is pretty good at continuing to innovate so Apple will have introduced new features by then," he said.

Apple's strength comes from the fact it writes its own software in addition to building the hardware, including the new A4 processor in the iPad and upcoming iPhone 4. Competitors like MSI, ASUS, Acer, LG, Intel, Compal, Dell and even Foxconn, which makes the iPad for Apple -- are licensing the chip, often the Tegra 2 but possibly Qualcomm's Snapdragon or Intel's Atom, and then licensing the software, like Android, Meego or Windows 7.

This gives Apple a major head start. It can work on the integration right from the beginning, and more importantly, said Heidarson, it gets a look at the interactions between the hardware and software.

"Apple gets a huge advantage having the software, hardware and semiconductor design in-house. They can see implications of the software on the hardware before anybody else during the early part of the development process and can react earlier than anyone else," he said.

The one company that could give Apple a real challenge is its neighbor in Cupertino, Calif.: Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ). Coming off the purchase of Palm, it has a group of developers who know handheld and portable devices and a very nice operating system in webOS.

"HP understood that to compete in this brave new world, having vertically integrated capabilities will be required in some parts of the market. They are the dark horse in the game," Heidarson said. "We don't know how the webOS acquisition will play out. They bought it but the question is whether the talent will remain to continue to take it in the right direction."

For now, Heidarson thinks competitors should use a smaller screen size, in the five- to seven-inch category. "If you go down to smaller form factor and do a more focused media experience, then there will be people interested in smaller media tablets. I doubt Apple will want to claim that market, because Apple wants to create an application platform and the 10-inch screen is the most useful one for them," he said.

"I think Apple's competitors would be wise to focus on five- to seven-inch screens inch until they get their user experience up to scratch," he added.

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


Android, iPad, Apple, tablet, Gartner