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How to make a tablet to beat the iPad 2

by Phil Hornshaw

The iPad 2 -- it remains sold out all over the world, unable to fill demand despite rumors that Apple (AAPL) had been planning for heavy sales for months before it hit stores on March 11. A cursory cruise down eBay (EBAY) street will show the cheapest of iPad models with prices $150 or more over retail. People want Apple’s tablet, and they’re willing to pay (even more of) a premium to get it.

Samsung (005930.KS), Motorola (MMI), HTC (2498.TW) and even Google (GOOG) are looking on in envy. They can’t seem to crack the code that Apple might have written -- their tablets are sharp and flashy, they have better components and differing price tags, they often handle more traditional applications and they run faster. Yet for some reason, no amount of shilling about processors and SD card slots seems to make a reasonable dent in iPad sales.

It has gotten so bad that some companies have taken to just emulating the iPad 2. That seems to be Samsung’s new approach to its Galaxy Tab models, which have the same price (or are slightly cheaper than) the iPad 2 and include a lot of the same features. Samsung recently remodeled the Galaxy Tab to be even thinner than the super-thin iPad 2, which is an interesting development: apparently, a few millimeters of difference in size could mean all the difference in sales -- right?

Playing the wrong game

Actually, no. While Samsung has made some positive changes to the Galaxy Tab, it’s doing something it fundamentally should not do: it’s letting Apple dictate the rules of the game it’s playing. It’s letting Apple say, “This is what a tablet should be,” and Samsung is then creating a knock-off of Apple’s vision. Not just Samsung, but all the entrants into the current tablet market, have simply legitimized the fact that there’s the iPad, the real deal, and then there’s a cheaper Android thing you can get if you’re a Steve Jobs hater, or if you want a bargain device that’s not quite up to snuff with the original.

Lots of people in the tech industry have weighed in on just what’s going on in the tablet market. “People don’t care about specs,” they say, as if that explains why superior-sounding Android tablets don’t move in nearly the numbers of inferior, often simplistic and highly Apple-controlled iPads. But it’s just not true: People do care about specifications, high-quality components, the speed of a tab’s processor and the resolution of its screen. But there’s one point about tablets no one ever seems to consider: No one knows what you can do with them.

Think about it. You pick up an Android tab in a store and what do you know about it, especially if you’re new to the operating system? Absolutely nothing -- so you start looking for features you would get on a PC. Internet. Email. Video viewing. And when a tablet offers you things you’ve had on your computer forever, except it’ll run you (at least) $500 and isn’t even really that much easier to use than the PC you’re used to, why would you want to buy one? Unlike PCs, in which high-quality specs translate into common knowledge about what a computer can do and how well it can do it (more or less), the hardware inside a tab could be hamsters on a wheel shooting a film projector at a bed sheet -- it makes no difference because unless what to use the device for is clear, no one has any basis of comparison.

What you can do with a tablet is the only thing that’s important

I mentioned briefly when talking about the rumored Google Nexus tablet a few days ago that if Google goes forward with its own tablet, it needs to think about the experience the way Apple does. This isn’t “the experience” of using Android, I mean it much more specifically -- the reason Apple is successful with the iPad is that Apple thinks of cool things you can do with the device.

Take, for example, the iPad 2 announcement event earlier this year. Apple CEO Steve Jobs came out on stage, talked about how great the iPad has been doing, showed off the new iPad 2 and spoke very briefly about its internal components. He said some key, simple things: the iPad 2 is faster and it’s better for games and the Internet. Most of the keynote addressed specific things the device can do: GarageBand and iMovie. Heck, Apple talked as much about a spiffy magnetic case for the iPad 2 as it did about the iPad 2 itself.

The device isn’t important: what it can do is important. The tablet market is so new, consumers really have no idea why they would want most of the tablets available in store, and that’s why they don’t sell.

So here’s how to beat the iPad 2, for all those Android tab-producing companies who want to join in.

  • First, don’t think about making a tablet at all.
  • Find something that should be easy and fun to do and isn’t. Look at Apple’s iMovie, which simplifies movie editing and distills it into a touch interface for speed and ease of use. Find something unique to bring to the tablet table.
  • Add a few more great applications. Come up with more cool things you wish you could do with technology but can’t -- Apple went with playing the guitar without having a guitar (and without having talent) using GarageBand.
  • Talk to app developers before building the device and get on board. Talk with app developers and start creating four or five amazing, powerful applications that your device can do, and do well, without ever thinking about the device itself. Find and create the experience you want people to have. It should be so intuitive that anyone can do it, and it should be so interesting that people want to show it to other people.
  • Don’t create apps based on what the device can do, build the device your cool apps need. If you build a device capable of simulating a guitar, or of turning your couch into a photo booth, you’ve simultaneously made a device that can do photography and email and YouTube. Those things are filler, not features, and they won’t help you compete.
  • Show people the unique experience. Market your tab with the screen on and the apps you’re proud of running. Everyone has seen YouTube and email before. Make people want to pick the device up and play around with it. If an app is engaging even for 30 seconds, if it’s easy to use and makes people want to grab whoever they’re with and show it to them, it’ll sell.

I’m making it sound simple, but it certainly feels so to me. Nobody wants a not-quite-as-good or not-quite-as-useful iPad. Apple doesn’t have a patent on creativity, they’re just the only team that’s really thinking creatively right now. They don’t talk about the specifications of the iPad really because it’s a discussion that doesn’t make sense. Steve Jobs just talks about ease, and magic, and comfort, because those are things that people experience on a visceral level. Tablets aren’t PCs and they shouldn’t be iPad clones; the way to beat the iPad is to stop thinking about the iPad, and instead, just think about making something people will want to use.