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iPad 2 release spells a bleak 2011 for other tablet makers

Apple Inc. Chairman CEO Steve Jobs stands under an image iPad 2 an Apple event YerbBuenCenter for Arts Theater San

Apple Inc. Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs stands under an image of the iPad 2 at an Apple event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco, Wednesday, March 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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Updated: April 22, 2011 10:08PM

The 2011 baseball season doesn’t even start for another few weeks. Even so, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this isn’t going to be the San Diego Padres’ year.

That’s fine. They’re working hard. They can spend this year building the team and the skills they’ll need to be competitive in 2012.

The 2011 tablet computer season has barely begun. Even so, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this isn’t going to be Google’s year, or HP’s, or RIM’s, or anybody else but Apple’s. At this point I’ve tried every major 2011 tablet -- released or unreleased -- and I can’t come up with any reasonable scenario in which I’d recommend anything other than an iPad. “You tried it and hated it” is one reason to shop elsewhere, I suppose. Another is “Your eccentric uncle died and left you ten million dollars, on the proviso that you marry a woman named Vladimir, not buy any Apple products, and eat an entire leather sofa.”

I’m more likely to believe the second one.

If there aren’t any truly inspired alternatives to the iPad this year, well ... that’s fine. These other companies are working hard. They can spend 2011 laying the groundwork for a successful 2012 season.

And it’s not as though the iPad is the only credible way to design a tablet. There’s room for competition and infinite possibilities for success ... but not until these companies accept some fundamental truths about the tablet market.

1) You can’t compete with Apple by trying to copy the iPad.

Seriously, people: Apple’s been designing and building iPads for a few years now and they’ve gotten really, really good at it. They’re certainly way better at building iPads than you are. If you try to build something the size of an iPad that tries to work kind of like an iPad, you’re pretty much admitting to your potential customers that Apple has The Real Thing and you’re selling a knockoff. One that costs $100 to $300 more, for some reason.

This is why I’m more optimistic about RIM’s PlayBook than any other non-iPad tablet on the immediate horizon. Steve Jobs railed against the futility of 7-inch tablets last year. RIM shrewdly took this as a sign that Apple isn’t going to make something like that. As a result, the 7-inch PlayBook starts off with an immediate and clear answer to the question “What makes this tablet different?”

2) You will indeed need to copy one thing: the iPad’s ecosystem.

Don’t just hand a user a tablet and then say “Good luck with that; tell us how everything works out.” No. You need to give them apps, and content, you’ll need to provide people with other devices that work well with it. Apple left nothing to chance: they released the iPad with a whole suite of slick, affordable business apps that they produced in-house.

Your tablet won’t have tens of thousands of apps on launch day but if you don’t seed its app store with a dozen exceptional titles, it’s clear that you’re not taking this seriously.

HP seems to have learned this broad lesson already. WebOS (HP’s mobile operating system) will power their upcoming TouchPad tablet, a new line of phones, and it’ll even ship on their PCs in 2012. HP will provide its users with whole a constellation of devices and services that support each other ... at least conceptually.

3) The Android OS isn’t a product and it isn’t a feature. It’s just an ingredient.

Google has done a great service to mobile computing by offering a modern and muscular multitouch OS free to anybody who wants to build and deploy it. But it’s becoming clear that Android is a house with empty rooms, plastered walls, bare subflooring, and pipes and wires sticking out from the places where appliances and services should go.

Google gave you a structure that passes all of the building codes. It’s now up to you, the device maker, to turn it into a comfortable, livable home for your users. You do that by adding a better UI, enhancing the built-in apps, and adding more consistency and value to the overall experience.

And building your own proprietary application framework and trying to entice developers into using it to build the highest-quality Android apps on the planet isn’t exactly a dumb idea.

4) If your tablet engineering team comes out of a three-day retreat with an energetic and unswervable commitment to just one feature, and that feature is “$299” ... you just might do pretty damned well.

Truth be told, McDonalds sells a good burger for 99 cents. It’s not the greatest sandwich at the food court, but it definitely earns a passing grade in every category. And at that price, it’s competitive against the bovine ambrosia that the wonderful men and women of In-N-Out Burger grill up.

If you can’t make a tablet that’s as good as the iPad (you probably can’t; see point one) you can still try to make a tablet that’s Just Good Enough and is much more affordable.

5) Producing a computer that triggers an emotional response isn’t something to be ashamed of. Far from it: that should be your actual goal.

Particularly when you’re trying to build a tablet. This is a computer that is actually designed to be hugged and stroked. Think about that for a moment. There’s a connection between a tablet and the user that exists in no other kind of computer.

And don’t equate “emotional” with “irrational.” When consumers shop for a tablet, they’re not going to be influenced by a 21-row chart that compares seven different models side by side, feature for feature, and specification by specification. They don’t particularly care that Model “X” has 256K more application RAM than Model “Y.” The one metric that truly matters to them is how he or she instinctively reacts when they pick it up and try to make it do something. A consumer knows when something feels right and they’ll usually chase that feeling all the way to the checkout line.

No kidding. Go to a Best Buy and an Apple Store and watch how people respond to various devices. When they pick up an Android tablet, you can see their shoulders hunch and their brows tighten. Eyes dart. Fingers fidget. Certain other parts clench.

When they pick up an iPad, they visibly relax. I see this phenomenon all the time.

Which is why your most important test data will come from a single person and not a committee of testers. Thumbs up or thumbs down. This works, or this doesn’t. “We can let you have this engineering sample for one extra day, or, if you give it back right now, we’ll give it back to you at a later date and you can keep it for a whole week.”

I honestly feel a certain amount of pity for everybody who’s trying to enter the tablet market this year. In every kind of creative endeavor -- and great technology is indeed a form of creative expression -- there’s a difference between real art and mere technical competence. It’s impossible to quantify but which everybody can intuit it almost instantly.

The world is full of singers, painters, actors, and dancers who can expertly perform any piece they’ve seen before. And then there’s Sinatra, Cézanne, Lemmon, Astaire ... and Apple. The ones who push the art form forward because their instincts push them to ask questions that have never been fully considered before. The ones who create the templates that everybody else will follow.

I do think we’ll see stiff competition for the iPad sometime soon. These other companies are just in a predictable early student stage of artistic development. In 2010 and, it appears, 2011, they’re still just learning how to use the tools and are busy copying the Old Masters.

Before long, they’ll grow frustrated by the limitations that they see in the work they’re copying and will be free to truly push the tablet form forward.

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