Menage á tablet: Apple vs Amazon vs Google
The three-way fight for the 7in form-factor
Analysis The new tablet battleground is the seven-incher. The biggest names in the business are lining up to fight it out for dominance: Google, Amazon and Apple.
It's Apple's focus on larger formats that has depressed the 7in tablet market to date - or at least until Amazon shipped the Kindle Fire late last year.
Samsung's 7in Galaxy Tab was an early bright light, but it failed to illuminate the shadow cast by the 9.7in iPad. Later 7in tablets from many of the best-known names in computer hardware have failed to yank buyers' attention away from larger tablets.
Even RIM's BlackBerry Playbook didn't prompt a big shift from larger 9-10in tablets to the smaller, more pocketable form-factor.
The Kindle Fire changed that, but it's effect was limited by Amazon's decision to restrict sales to the US. There, the Fire initially did very well, timed as it was to tap into the 2011 Holiday gift-giving season and priced to sell.
The $199 Fire is undoubtedly the inspiration for Google's Nexus 7, a 7in tablet that is not only out to beat the Fire in physical terms - a fast Tegra 3 CPU, a higher resolution display, a sleeker design - but to pitch Google Play as a viable alternative to Amazon's content selling system.
Popularising the 7in form-factor
Both tablets are less about providing a new, useful mobile computing platform as being on-the-go shopfronts for each firm's online retail outlets.
Google has dropped hints about the Nexus 7 at various points during the year, and spec leaks have come thick and fast too. But even without them, Amazon would have been preparing a smarter follow-up to the slab-like Fire.
The latest whispers have it due for announcement and/or release this August, though an earlier introduction - especially if Amazon plans to finally make the Fire available outside the US - would be more sensible, allowing the company to tap into Europe's big summer holiday period.
Reports suggest the new one will the thinner - well, you don't say… - which will up production costs, making it harder for Amazon to hit the $199 price point. A better assembled display, to eliminate the gap between the touchpanel and the LCD beneath, will add $10 to Amazon's manufacturing costs, DigiTimes reports industry insiders as claiming.
Amazon's model is surely predicated on offering the Fire as a loss-leader to encourage content sales which bring in the real money, so it's probably less concerned about extra costs here as ensuring rival offerings - step forward, Nexus 7 - don't eat into its own sales.
It also needs to get in quickly before Apple makes a play and releases a 7in device that would surely extinguish the current Kindle Fire.
Rumours of a 7-8in Apple 'iPad Mini' have been regularly surfacing for the best part of a year now, with only Steve Jobs' one-time dismissal of the form-factor to suggest Apple isn't working on one.
While Apple might reasonably have dismissed the 7in form-factor in the past - not least because the iPad was so certainly establishing ten inches as the 'right' size for tablets in the minds of consumers - that's harder to do now that Amazon and Google are pursuing it.
They chose seven inches for two reasons: it's more mobile and - perhaps the really important criterion - it's more readily distinguishable from the iPad.
Apple may choose to cede the 7in market to others - just as it ignores the low-cost laptop market - in order to focus its attention on maintaining its lead in the more lucrative 10in market, but it too makes money selling content, and with all those apps and media to cash in on, it would be foolish to ignore a growing segment of the tablet market.
Anecdotally, I know a fair few folk who still use regular e-book readers and smartphones for content consumption because they don't want to wave a ten-inch tablet around on a crowded underground train. They'd like a device with a larger screen - or colour, in the case of e-book reader users - but they want one that's more portable and more discreet.
A more portable, discreet iPad
Matthew McKee, of research company Strategy Analytics, reckons the iPad Mini would directly challenge Amazon's regular Kindles, the Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook, creating an entirely new market segment for the Mac maker.
"Assuming a price of as little as $299, the smaller device would offer cost and portability advantages, which could propel Apple to the top of the 7in tablet space, in addition to its number one position for 10in tablets," he says.
"Device value is determined by what consumers can read, play, or watch on their tablet, and about the user experience, something that has been sadly lacking in the $200 tablet range," says Peter King, also of Strategy Analytics.
Quite how Android 4.1 Jelly Bean's more content-centric UI shapes up remains to be seen, but while the Kindle Fire had content in spades, its UI is prosaic and unimpressive. In iTunes and iOS Apple has lots of great content and a good UI. It could be very tough to beat in the 7in market.
The question, then, Apple bosses will be asking each other is will a move into the 7in market add to sales of the 10in iPad, or cannibalise them.
Such is Apple's lead in the tablet market as a whole, shifting sales from one segment to another may not matter, and by offering a form-factor that a lot of folk clearly want, it could even extend its leadership.
Then there's the nature of the tablet. Beyond increasing the CPU speed a little, upping the storage capacity and improving the specifications of lesser components like the cameras, there's not a lot Apple can really do to evolve the current iPad's hardware. Doubling the display resolution again, for instance, is not going to improve it much, if at all.
Apple may have little choice at this point but to widen the iPad range. ®