Can't Stop, Won't Stop

Analysts predict that Apple will sell a whole lot of iPads:

“With our checks indicating record pre-orders and 2–3 week wait times for new iPads, we anticipate a record iPad launch this weekend,” said analysts T Michael Walkley and Matthew Ramsay.

They raised their iPad unit estimate to 65.6 million from 55.9 million for 2012, and to 90.6 million from 79.7 million for 2013, saying rivals will likely struggle to introduce competitive products over the next couple quarters.

This is why I’m skeptical of calls for Apple to build a smaller iPad, to compete with the Amazon Fire or other competitors. Apple won’t have any trouble selling iPads, and the tablet market is new and malleable enough that the company doesn’t have to worry about matching competition—they can continue to grow the market by finding new customers. Nintendo’s success with the Wii is a perfect example of this. Instead of competing with Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo moved horizontally in an attempt to bring in non-gamers. The result was explosive growth and a remarkably successful video-game console.

In fact, to go back to a point I made last week, I’m skeptical that Apple will ever see meaningful competition in the tablet space. This isn’t like the PC fight—where licensed software, cheaper hardware, and business support gave Microsoft a huge, enduring lead (that continues to exist)—or the ongoing battle over smartphone market share, where carriers provide huge subsidies to customers who tend to choose on the basis of price. Instead, I have a feeling that the tablet market will look a lot like the market for MP3 players, where Apple rockets ahead of its competitors with a single, compelling product and maintains that lead through constant iteration and price cuts to expand the market.

It’s possible that a competitor will release a device that changes the game and leads customers away from the iPad in the same way that Apple upended the smartphone market with the iPhone. But again, I’m skeptical. Apple isn’t just selling a device, it’s selling an ecosystem that strongly incentives further investment. Owning an iPad and using iOS applications makes it more likely that you’ll stick with an iPad in the future—to maintain your investment—and even purchase an iPhone or a Mac, to further enhance the integration.

In fact, this is what happened with the iPod; owners were more likely to purchase Macs—which were easier to use with iTunes—and rely on Apple as their main vendor for music and other media. Apple’s iCloud services—which have expanded beyond e-mail, messages, and calendars to include cloud music, movies, photos, and documents—is part in parcel of the effort to keep Apple customers locked in.

No other company can boast the ability to create that kind of total lock in, and it will be a long time before someone else can manage it (the most likely candidates are Amazon and Google). Of course, by the time it happens, the iPad will already have an overwhelming share of the market.

Whether this is actually good for consumers is a different question. For now, it’s fine. In the long run? Probably not. Which is why I hope that Microsoft can find its footing with Windows 8.