updated 09:40 pm EST, Wed January 27, 2010
Apple banking on color and apps
With the launch of the iPad today, many have been proclaiming the death of e-book readers like the Kindle -- as well as yet-to-be-released devices like the HP slate. However, the comparison isn't actually quite so simple and could potentially leave Apple hurting. We're taking a close look at how Apple's tablet stacks up against not just its most obvious competitor today but its expected rival in the future.
As a technical feat, there's no question that the iPad is clearly better than the Kindle. Apart from the Kindle's week-long battery life on e-paper, the simple truth is that the iPad is in an entirely different class: it can display color, it's fast enough to display video, and it holds eight times more storage. Like some e-readers, Apple also has the advantage of Wi-Fi. Having international 3G does give the Kindle Internet access in most countries, but Apple's hardware will have reception in a basement or in areas with less than perfect coverage.
Where the Kindle will truly hurt, however, is software. By the nature of the screen, Amazon virtually has to make its device single-purpose: e-paper doesn't work for much else beyond text. The company has said it will offer apps, but it's no secret that the very existence of the app platform is in response to worries about what Apple would do. As it stands, the software itself will, again, be limited by the e-paper. Most of what's known to be coming so far will be limited to simple text apps and static puzzle games. Apple's solution may "cheat" by borrowing the existing iPhone app library, but the fact remains that it will have a true web browser (versus the Kindle's "experimental" version), a full media player, e-mail, advanced games, and maps.
It should also be noted that Apple is paradoxically the most open here. It's using EPUB, a format that's shared by the Nook, QUE, Sony Reader and other devices. Amazon's Kindle format doesn't require copy protection, but it's only ever useful within hardware and software Amazon makes.
Amazon's best hope is in cost, and it's here that Apple has to genuinely worry. The immediate price difference is obvious: at $499, the basic iPad is about twice as expensive as a 6-inch Kindle; the Kindle DX may only be $10 less expensive, but Apple's unit doesn't even have 3G at that level. To draw even, it's necessary to pay at least $629. And of course, Amazon's 3G is provided for free -- admittedly because not much can be done with it, but it's far easier to justify than a recurring data plan, even if it's as little as $15 a month.
As such, we see don't see Apple completely cannibalizing Amazon's readers; the 6-inch model is simply too inexpensive to ignore. But, simply speaking, the Kindle DX has been killed almost overnight. It's not cheap enough to be the bargain buy, but not advanced enough to be the high-end model anymore. It's entirely likely that Amazon will have a refresh in February, but short of a color screen and Wi-Fi, it will undoubtedly be a hard sell.
So, what about the HP slate? It's still too early to provide a definitive answer, but it's also evident early on that it's taking a fundamentally different approach that could be the real danger to Apple. The prototype we've seen so far is running a full version of Windows 7 and is theoretically much more powerful from a software standpoint. It can multitask, run Flash video, and handle desktop-level apps. Pricing is still an unknown, but HP has already sworn that it will be much less than the $1,500 it would have cost a year ago.
But it may ironically be the very interface that trips HP up. A stock version of Windows 7 may include multi-touch, but most of its interface isn't at all designed for fingers. How many users will be eager to change their browser settings or setup a home network with miniscule options buttons and text? Even though HP has smartly pitched the slate as a media consumption device like the iPad, the maintenance that a desktop OS needs could actually make the slate unpleasant to use where the iPad's more limited interface may actually be a blessing.
Calling the outcome of an iPad versus HP slate battle is difficult, but we're still inclined to give Apple the nod for the simple reason of Microsoft's legacy. The latter so far hasn't shown that it knows how to develop a truly appealing tablet interface. Every concept it has tried -- Tablet PC, UMPC, Origami -- has either been relegated to a niche, such as doctors, or has stalled out as it was caught in between categories without convincing users that it's good enough to either replace one of those categories or to justify its existence in a class of it's own. It has always been Windows shoehorned into a smaller touch design, not a unique experience built from the ground up.
We're not yet ready to say the iPad will do this either, but it has a potentially very strong mix of display, performance and software that should give it the best chance of succeeding.
Amazon's 6-inch Kindle
HP's slate prototype