The iPad is the tablet market, for now

For the foreseeable future, the iPad is the only serious player in the U.S. tablet market. At least until the buying experience for Android tablets vastly improves.

Confusion continues to be the rule rather than the exception for the Android tablet buying experience at stores in the U.S. That will keep Apple in control of the tablet market for the foreseeable future.

HP TouchPad running a Flash video at a recent tech conference. No vendor to date has been able to take on Apple effectively in the U.S.
HP TouchPad running a Flash video at a recent tech conference. No vendor to date has been able to take on Apple effectively in the U.S. Brooke Crothers

That lede may rankle Android enthusiasts. But let me begin with a vignette that illustrates the confusion that prevails with tablets other than the iPad.

A few tech blogs posted headlines on Thursday and Friday proclaiming that the Motorola Xoom had dropped to $500 at Costco.

I decided to swing by my local Costco in suburban Los Angeles Friday night to verify this, since one of the biggest criticisms of the Xoom has been its high price vis-a-vis the iPad. Why make the trip to Costco and not just verify this online? Well, that eye-catching price didn't show up online (where it's listed at $589).

So, on entering Costco, the first section I ran into was electronics. And the Xoom is prominently advertised: banners are in your face at the entrance and hard to miss. That's good. Unfortunately, the buying experience went downhill from there.

The first hint of trouble was the complete absence of pricing. No $499 banner that I had seen in the tech blog. Not even a small price tag. Nothing. So, of course, I asked a clerk about this. She apologized about the lack of a posted price and then promptly excused herself to find out what was happening. Apparently, it wasn't an easy question to answer, because it was a long time before she returned.

What took so long? She had to talk to her manager because there was some confusion. About the price, of course. Or lack of it. The verdict: $789.

Needless to say, I was surprised, as that's higher than the online price and a far cry from $500. But that was the only price she gave me. (And it's possible that other Costco stores may be selling the Xoom for $499 or $500, but certainly not this one.)

The moral of this story is that confusion sows doubt. I'm guessing this sort of experience would send the average consumer--who is trying to decide between an Android tablet and the iPad--running to an Apple store where this kind of very basic question doesn't even need to be asked.

And this isn't the first time I've walked out of a store shaking my head. Best Buy is still struggling to sell--and effectively explain--tablets. And I'm not alone in this opinion. I've had a few discussions with Richard Shim, an analyst at DisplaySearch, about this. Until other tablet makers can offer a buying experience that replicates to some degree the relative clarity Apple provides, buyers visiting retail outlets like Best Buy and Staples won't have a clue about why they might need a tablet, according to Shim, who has written about this, too.

Talk to store clerks, and in their more candid moments they'll tell you the same thing. I had one of these conversations this week at a Los Angeles Staples , which has converted the entire front section of its store to tablet displays--Motorola Xoom, BlackBerry PlayBook, and Acer Iconia, among others. (Note that Staples does not sell the iPad.)

People buy tablets "on impulse," the clerk said. They take the newfangled device home and then realize that they can't do all the things on a tablet that they can do with a laptop. In an unusually high number of cases, the tablet is returned, he said, adding that the store had a growing collection of open boxes in the back. "There's nothing wrong with them. It's not that they're broken," he said. It's that some people don't understand what a tablet is before they buy, and they end up returning it.

Sales numbers bear out the stark contrast in buying experiences. Apple measures iPad sales in the millions per month, while Motorola measures sales in the thousands. The BlackBerry PlayBook, based on published shipment numbers from RIM , isn't doing much better.

A research note this week from Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Rodman and Renshaw, supports this. In commentary entitled "And then there was one" (referring to the iPad), he states that iPad production estimates for the June quarter range from 8 million to 11 million units. Then he adds, "this much is clear, Apple continues to dominate the tablet segment as the competition struggles off the gate."

The note goes on. "RIM...continues to pare back production orders for the PlayBook, and our checks indicate that it has shelved plans for a LTE iteration...Samsung and LG remain peripheral players."

Will Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad suddenly emerge as a big hit like the iPad? We won't know until the TouchPad goes on sale, but if the buying experience is anything like it is with Android tablets, I don't expect big numbers.

My prediction? Outside of the iPad, the tablet remains, for the remainder of this year, little more than a curiosity at stores.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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