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There really isn’t much of a “tablet” market

There’s an iPad market, and the iPad could be classified as a tablet, from a hardware-centric viewpoint. But the market for non-iPad tablets is about as big today as it was before the iPad, which isn’t nothing, but it’s close enough to nothing that Apple doesn’t need to worry about it.

How many people do you know who wanted or received an iPad for Christmas?

Alright, same question, but this time, for the Samsung Galaxy Tab or any other tablet that’s not the iPad. (Kindles are not tablets. The new Nook Color might be. You can count it if you’re arguing with me.)

Now, from both groups, exclude those who know what RSS is, because we don’t represent the bulk of the market. How big is that second group now?

Before the iPad, tablets were a tough sell:

The lack of graceful software is the most fatal problem: bad software’s limitations, frustrations, poor designs, and bugs hinder or prevent the delight and attraction that make people start rationalizing away the other problems because they just want this cool new thing. And that’s critical: without that inexplicable desire that people get when they pick one up and play with it for a minute, people will start asking rational questions like “Do I really need this for anything?” and “Will I actually bring this anywhere?” that kill the mass-market demand for unnecessary $500 gadgets pretty quickly.

Apple could solve the software problem exceptionally well, putting them in a strong position to release the first mass-market tablet that had a chance of being successful. So they did. And they ignored the other tablet problems, for the most part: they did what they could to minimize them where possible, but they’re all still very good reasons for many people not to buy iPads. Fortunately, there are millions of other people swayed by the appeal of this low-needs, tactile, and downright fun computer because of its incredibly good software.

But no other device maker today can solve the software problem as well as Apple did.

Most of them are hardware companies relying on someone else — Google or Microsoft — for the majority (or the entirety) of the software.

Neither Google nor Microsoft will ever be able to tailor their software to other manufacturers’ specific (and varied) hardware devices as well as Apple can (and does) with theirs.

And, like they’ve done so far with Android, the hardware manufacturers will continue to attempt to make their own user-facing applications and front-end interfaces, but these usually suck. (Other people may describe “suck” with kinder, apologist adjectives like “getting better” and “not bad”.)

These manufacturers aren’t software companies: they’re hardware companies that write software out of necessity. Apple is a software company that makes hardware out of necessity. The software side of a modern computing platform is far more difficult and expensive to create and maintain than the hardware. Anyone can cobble together the same processors, DRAM, flash, and radios as Apple, put them into a plastic case, and run a commodity OS on them with slight front-end customizations. But not everyone can create an entire software platform.

It’s not just a matter of interface design. Apple has built an entire ecosystem to support and enrich the iPad for both customers and developers. To be competitive, a newcomer to the tablet software market needs to replicate or sidestep the need for nearly all of Apple’s major efforts, including synchronization of media and data with Windows PCs and Macs, integration with popular web services, an integrated payment system that customers will actually use at a reasonable rate, a well-stocked music and video storefront, plenty of high-quality third-party apps and fun games, a sophisticated SDK and development environment, widespread retail availability and customer support, and an assortment of good first- and third-party accessories to fulfill common needs (cases, chargers, docks, screen protectors, extended batteries) and give the device new uses (tripods, speakers, styluses, input and output adapters, wall and car mounts).

Because when normal people — not gadget bloggers and geeks like us — need to consider an alternative to the iPad, they’re not just thinking of Apple’s lack of “openness” (as Google so vaguely and poorly defines it in relation to Android) or the iPad’s lack of some individual hardware feature. Buying an alternative means giving up Apple’s entire ecosystem. That’s worth it to some buyers, but it’s incredibly impractical for many.

A successful mass-market iPad competitor needs to be so good that people will ignore all of that, buy it in large quantities, and let it develop its own entire ecosystem.

But when the device-of-the-moment is so short-lived that accessory markets never develop, and the hardware fragmentation and shoddy craftsmanship prevents the software from ever getting good, and developers need to suffer through immature tools to release apps that then don’t make much money, that’s unlikely to happen.

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