The original iPad certainly had its detractors. But for all the myriad complaints about that big ol' bezel, the lack of cameras, the name, and so on, there was one refrain that echoed loudest among the haters: It's just a big iPhone.
You know what? They were wrong. We all were. As Farhad Manjoo points out in Slate, the iPad isn't an iPhone at all. It's an iPod. And more than anything, that's why it's been so successful.
The crux of Manjoo's argument (and it's a good one, you should read it) is that when Apple released the iPad, its success could have gone two ways: the very-popular-but-far-from-ubiquitous iPhone position, or the wait-does-anyone-else-even-make-these dominance of the iPod. In market share terms, iOS holds 23 percent of the world smartphone sales, while iPods represent 78 percent of the portable music player market.
The iPad? After spending the early days at 90 percent or so, it's nestled in comfortably at around 60 percent of tablets sold worldwide. Excluding Kindle Fire and Nook sales, you're back up to around 80 percent market share. Four out of five full-feature tablets sold come from Apple.
And frankly, Apple should be selling that many. It's not fanboyism to point out that Apple has staked out a massive lead in app ecosystem, UI, and value. And while the iPad is still out-muscled by the Transformer Primes of the world, it has more than enough sinew and guts for what most people would ever need.
Like the iPod, the iPad established an entirely new product category. Like the iPod, it used its massive head start to put the competition in a loss-leading position. And for now, like the iPod, that's led to a patina of invincibility.
So yes, so far, the iPad has certainly been iPod-like. But will it continue to? That's much less likely. The comparison is apt, but it's beginning to break down. The center cannot hold.
One of the reasons the iPad had so much relative success in the early days is that it was the king of a very short hill. It's easy to rack up market share points when the other team doesn't have any players. Remember, the iPad's success was far from assured when it first came out. It was a neat toy, sure, but an expensive one. More importantly, it was hard to imagine that anyone needed and iPad. It was, at first, seen as not much more than a niche category. Like, say, personal music players had become after the advent of 16GB smartphones. PC manufacturers happily sat on the sidelines, waiting to see how it all played out.
But then something happened to the iPad, and to tablets in general. People actually liked it. Very, very, very much. So much so that Apple sold more iPads last quarter than any PC maker sold laptops. So much so that if you're a giant consumer electronics manufacturer, you're going to throw everything you have at becoming a major tablet player. And that's where the iPad recedes back to the iPhone model.
What Manjoo neglects to mention is why the iPod has remained so popular, all of ten years later. It's because nobody cares. That category was ceded a long, long time ago. When's the last time you saw a Sansa ad? A Samsung Galaxy Player billboard? A Zune anything? You don't, because the PMP is a category made redundant by smartphones a long, long time ago.
Tablets, though? Unless this is a fad of unprecedented proportions, they're the future. In five years, ten, they're going to be how we compute. And if you're a laptop OEM, you have two options: fight like hell to be a part of it (Samsung), or awkwardly depart the field, following IBM into the land of IT infrastructure (Dell). No one's going to concede an inch of ground to the iPad.
So while Slate's headline screams "unbeatable," take it for the hyperbole that it is. Is it possible no one will catch up? Sure. But too many smart people know that too much money is at stake for that to be a certainty.
The iPad has existed comfortably as an iPod, yes. And enjoyed the same ridiculously excessive success. But the romp may be just about over. Amazon. Samsung. Microsoft. Asus. Nvidia. Barnes & Noble. They're going to fight the tablet war for as long as it takes. The only question now is if there's any ammo left.