At this rate, there won’t be a tablet market, just an iPad market

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The future of the hot tablet market is starting to remind me of a famous Henry Ford quote. In his autobiography, he said this of the Model T automobile: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” What a does a 90-year old quote have to do with today’s tablets? Due to lawsuits and alleged patent infringements, it’s beginning to look like tablet buyers will be able to buy any tablet they want, so long as it is Apple’s iPad.

Yesterday saw a huge blow to Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 slate, arguably the Google Android tablet best suited to do battle with Apple’s iPad for sales. A German court ordered a preliminary injunction to stop all sales and marketing of Samsung’s tablet, which was the flagship device shown off at Google’s I/O developer conference in May. The injunction doesn’t just impact Samsung in Germany, however. It applies to all EU member countries, save the Netherlands, which effectively halts Samsung’s sales across nearly all of the European continent. This follows an agreement last week between Apple and Samsung to hold up the Galaxy Tab for sale in Australia as the two companies work out their differences.

A new day brings a new target as Florian Mueller of the FOSS Patents blog today noticed that Motorola’s Xoom tablet has also been named in a similar court complaint by Apple. No court action has yet been taken against Motorola as of yet, but Mueller, a long-time patent analyst, suspects Apple will or has asked for an EU-wide injunction against Motorola. I’m not sure that Apple has as much to gain with such action though; Motorola said it shipped just 440,000 Xoom tablets in the second quarter of this year, while Apple reported 9.25 million iPad sold in the same time period. Then again, the Xoom hasn’t yet launched in all of Europe. Motorola’s tablet just launched in Spain at the end of July, for example.

While nobody but Apple knows which and how many tablets the iPad-maker will bring legal action against, the situation is concerning. On the one hand, I fully respect Apple’s desire and obligation to protect its intellectual property. On the other hand, the extreme case of having only one tablet choice on store shelves isn’t ideal either. I’ve used tablets that run on all of the major platforms now — BlackBerry/QNX, webOS, Android Honeycomb and iOS. Each device and platform has something to like, allowing for both consumers and businesses to choose the tablet that best meets their needs.

Most worrisome to me is that Apple doesn’t appear to be patenting the iPad itself, but instead is, in a loose sense, patenting an entire class or market of devices. Apple couldn’t effectively do this with the MP3 market and the iPod because it wasn’t the first entrant to that market. Apple improved upon the existing field of digital audio players with a solid user experience tied it to an effective ecosystem. Contrast that with the iPad, which essentially created a viable consumer tablet market. No, the iPad wasn’t the first tablet by a long shot, but it was the first to attract worldwide sales in significant numbers. The iPad contributed $6 billion in revenues for Apple in the last quarter; higher than the $5 billion earned by Mac computers.

To say that the iPad is, and will be, a key driver for Apple’s continued growth, is fairly obvious. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing strong legal activity in the tablet market right now, as Apple will surely protect its new mobile cash cow. Again, I’m sympathetic to that need. But let’s face it, trying to differentiate the look and feel of a rectangular display with a bezel and internal smartphone components is pretty hard to do, if not impossible. Think of it this way: What if a computer maker had patented the general design of a laptop?

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