Can Samsung or Sony beat the iPad, or will Amazon get there first?

Can anything beat the iPad? New contenders emerged at IFA this week, but will Amazon's effort have the best chance of besting Apple?

Can anything beat the iPad? For the year and a half since the debut of Apple's first iOS tablet, the answer has been a resounding no. Far from being iPad killers, many of Apple's rivals have displayed more suicidal tendencies, from RIM's decision to leave native email, calendar and contacts apps out of its BlackBerry PlayBook, through to HP's now-infamous immolation of its TouchPad mere months after its release.

Meanwhile, Apple has been markedly aggressive in its attempts to kill rather than be killed, enmeshing Samsung's Galaxy Tab range in a web of lawsuits that could yet see it whipped off the shelves in Europe and beyond.

The company bucked a significant trend when it launched the first iPad in 2010. Apple has traditionally launched new products later than rivals with the aim of bettering them: iTunes, iPod and iPhone being the three most obvious examples.

Admittedly, Apple was a decade later than Microsoft into the tablet market -- a second's silence in memory of Tablet PCs, please -- but in the context of the current wave of slates, it was notably early. Watching the attempts of many rivals to catch up, it looks a pretty smart move.

New hopefuls at IFA

So now what? The IFA show in Berlin this week marked the unveiling of a number of second-generation Android tablets hoping to do a better job of at least nicking the odd flesh wound on the iPad, if not actually killing it.

Toshiba's AT200 is super-slim; Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.7 (pictured above) is the cheeky little brother of the Galaxy Tab range; Lenovo is going after bargain-hunters with the $199 IdeaPad; and Sony finally took the wrappers off its much-leaked S and P tablets, with the latter becoming the first tablet with the selling point of, er, not being tablet-shaped, thanks to its dual-screen clamshell design.

What will it take for one or more of these devices to give the iPad a run for its money? The danger is to focus on their hardware specs. It's true that most of these are more attractive devices than the first wave of Android tablets, which had a distinctly functional feel. You certainly wouldn't be embarrassed using an AT200 or Tab 7.7 on the train.

Meanwhile, there are iterative improvements over the iPad on show with this new range of Android tabs, including better cameras, memory card slots and built-in HDMI ports. While these would be welcome additions when the iPad 3 eventually comes along though, they're not major factors in tempting people away from the iPad 2 right now. 9.25 million people bought an iPad in the second quarter of this year alone, after all.

Assuming every tablet maker continues to tweak the design of their hardware and upgrade the processors and cameras, there are three key things that will define which devices have a shot at competing with the iPad: software, content and pricing.

Software

Software first, which is mainly down to Google. How fast can it continue to develop the tablet-friendly variant of Android, matching the features and usability of iOS while adding some genuinely desirable extras? All the evidence from Honeycomb 3.0 onwards indicates that Google knows what it needs to do, but with iOS 5 set for release in September or October, Google can't slacken its efforts.

And if you're reading, manufacturers, boasting about having Flash on your devices has lost its lustre as a selling point -- if indeed it ever had much lustre in the first place. Taking on the iPad needs to be about the experience of using an Android tablet, not taking feature-by-feature potshots.

Entertainment

This is where Sony's devices are particularly interesting. iTunes and the App Store are critical to the success of the iPad: link it to your iTunes account and music, TV shows, films, ebooks, apps and games are readily available.

So how do the competition stack up? The number of Android tablet apps is increasing gradually, but many developers and publishers are waiting to see which specific devices sell in their millions before porting their iPad apps across, let alone making anything exclusive. It's a nasty chicken and egg situation, and whatever Google can do to break the cycle will make its partners' tablets much more appealing.

But yes, entertainment. Sony's tabs will put the company's own services at the centre of the devices: Music Unlimited for tunes, Video Unlimited for films and TV shows, Sony Reader for ebooks and PlayStation for games. At first glance, it's the closest anyone has come to rivalling the iPad+iTunes combo. Much still depends on whether Sony can do anything innovative around the pricing of these different services though -- what about taking on Apple by bundling the price of all this entertainment into the price of a Tablet S or Tablet P itself?

Price

The third potential stick to beat the iPad with is price. When HP started flogging its unwanted TouchPads for less than £100, it discovered that there were thousands -- if not millions -- of people champing at the bit to pay less than 100 quid for a decent tablet. Apple is never -- not in the next few years at least -- going to hit that price with an iPad, so there's a gap here to be filled.

The question is how good a tablet can you make for that price? Not one as good as the TouchPad, that's for sure: HP is swallowing a loss on every unit in its big closing-down firesale, although that's easier to stomach than burying millions in a landfill for our future alien overlords to be puzzled by in 2276.

Sony has a shot at going head-to-head with iPad at the classy end of the tablet market, as do HTC, Samsung and the rest if they can do some interesting deals around the entertainment aspects of their devices. But who could possibly make a tablet for less than £100, but with lots of music, films, ebooks and other content readily available to subsidise any loss made with that pricing?

Kindle tablet?

Stop me if you saw this one coming: Amazon. The company's plans to launch a tablet this side of Christmas have been the subject of regular leaks in recent months, while its launch of an Android app store (or ' Appstore ') earlier this year was another clear pointer to the company's ambitions.

Here's what analyst firm Forrester Research's Sarah Rotman Epps had to say earlier this week in a blog post, which neatly summarises the potential: "Amazon's willingness to sell hardware at a loss combined with the strength of its brand, content, cloud infrastructure, and commerce assets makes it the only credible iPad competitor in the market.

"If Amazon launches a tablet at a sub-$300 price point -- assuming it has enough supply to meet demand -- we see Amazon selling 3-5 million tablets in Q4 alone."

Amazon has an MP3 music store (and in the US a cloud locker service, even if it's lacking some of iCloud 's features). It has movie streaming too there, and that Appstore for apps and games. If only Amazon can pull its finger out to do something in ebooks it could... Oh, yes. That too .

Amazon as the main challenger for Apple's iPad crown? This week's crop of slinky new Android tablets may have roles to play too, of course, but the KindleTab (or whatever better name Amazon calls it) could be the real contender.

 

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