Holiday shoppers with a tablet computer on their gift list this year might be forgiven for feeling a little panicked.
at the tablets available online or at a consumer electronics store and
it can be dizzying to choose from among the dozens of slim rectangles
with touch screens - each with various sizes, features, prices and
Tablets were supposed to be a simple alternative to
the bloated personal computer market. And when "tablet" was synonymous
with "iPad," that was true.
But this is the first holiday season
in which the iPad faces competitors that have built up a solid footing
in the market. Amazon and Google introduced tablets just in time for the
shopping rush. As a result, many consumers and analysts say, the new
market of keyboardless computers is quickly becoming as confusing as
that of the old-school PC.
"What's different about this holiday
season is that consumers have not just more choice, but really good
choices," said Sarah Rotman Epps, who studies consumer computing trends
at Forrester. "There have been many iPad wannabes but no real quality
alternatives, and now there are several."
While choice is a good thing for consumers, she said, it also makes shopping "confusing and complicated."
the companies that make tablets, the choice means everything. The
stakes are much higher than the sale of individual devices. Each company
is trying to snag lifelong customers for their other products - like
music, apps, e-books, movies, Web search or word-processing software.
Apple has dominated the market until now, selling more tablets than any
other company, its perch is being threatened by the newcomers.
"Apple left a lot of room for rivals to grow," said Tero Kuittinen, an independent mobile analyst.
keeping its tablet prices so high, he said, Apple could lose its place
as the biggest tablet seller, just as it did with smartphones when it
lost the first-place position to Samsung, which makes less expensive
phones using Google's Android software. The iPad still dominates the
market with a 50 percent share, according to third-quarter figures from
the research firm IDC, but that is down from 60 percent a year ago.
Samsung is in second place with an 18 percent share, Amazon is third
with 9 percent, and Asus, which makes Google's Nexus 7 tablet, is in
fourth with 8.6 percent of the market.
But Google, which makes the
vast majority of its revenue on Web ads, still lags in the tablet
market, even though sales of its Nexus 7 tablet are approaching one
million a month, according to Asus. About 98 percent of Web traffic from
tablets comes from iPads, according to Onswipe, a digital publishing
company. Google would like more of that traffic, as well as more buyers
for apps and media from its Google Play store, as would Amazon and
"The first decision you make is what ecosystem am I in,
do I want the Android Play store and content or some other?" said
Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google's vice president for engineering for Android.
"So the importance of the ecosystem can't be overstated."
But the decisions after that are still complex.
for example, that you want a tablet that runs Google's Android
operating system. There is the Nexus 7, a seven-inch tablet made by
Asus, and the Nexus 10, a 10-inch tablet made by Samsung. Then there are
the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (not to
be confused with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, a 5.5-inch smartphone). And
that's not to mention the dozens of Android tablets made by Lenovo,
Toshiba and others.
This year, Microsoft also has a tablet, called
Surface. Amazon has the Kindle Fire and Fire HD, and Barnes & Noble
has the Nook HD and HD+. Once shoppers choose one, they have more
choices to make, like whether they want to pay $15 more for the
privilege of not seeing ads on the Kindle Fire.
Even Apple, which
has always prided itself on having simple product lines, now offers the
new iPad, the older iPad 2 and the iPad Mini. If you factor in the
various amounts of storage and the choice of cellular data or just
Wi-Fi, there are essentially 14 iPad models to choose from.
the decision on hardware, different tablets connect to different online
stores for apps, music and video. If you have built your music and app
collection on Apple devices, an Android tablet may mean starting from
scratch, and vice versa.
The proliferation of products is nothing
new for a mature market, as anyone who has stood in front of a wall of
televisions at Best Buy or in a parking lot of Priuses at a Toyota
But some consumer electronics companies that
have given their customers too many options have run into trouble, said
Shaw Wu, an analyst at Sterne Agee. They include Motorola Mobility,
which is trying to rescue its cellphone business by paring its lineup of
27 devices, and Research in Motion, which offers a perplexing matrix of
BlackBerrys with confusing names, like the BlackBerry Torch 9810, 9850
Google in particular runs this risk, said Michael
Gartenberg, a technology analyst at Gartner, because it gives away its
Android operating system to any device manufacturer that wants to use
it, resulting in an uncontrolled array of Android devices running
different versions of the software. Some apps will work only with
particular versions, making it difficult to know exactly what you are
Google has tried to address this problem in recent
months. It gave its line of Nexus products names corresponding to their
screen size and began selling them in its Play store. (Google teams up
with manufacturers to build the Nexus devices.) It began running ads for
the tablets online, on billboards, in print and on television, which
had been rare for the company, and assigned a public relations employee
to focus on selling hardware to consumers.
"I don't think the
added choice is adding complexity," said Mr. Lockheimer of Google. "If
you want to do the research, you can do it, but if you don't want to,
you can just ignore all that and get the thing your friend or family
For shoppers inclined to do the research,
many Web sites and apps, including those from CNet, Retrevo, Decide.com
and Consumer Reports, can help.
"Even those of us who eat and
breathe tech, we're still confused," said Lawrence Fong, co-founder of
BuyVia, a shopping app that compares products, including tablets.
"That's why we're explaining each product in plain English."
default choice for shoppers, Ms. Rotman Epps said, is often an iPad. "It
is a road-tested product, it comes with the Apple quality halo around
Apple's brand, and it's leagues ahead in terms of the apps available for
it," she said.
But iPads are more expensive than other tablets.
They range from $330 for the least expensive iPad Mini to $830 for a
64-gigabyte iPad with cellular data and Wi-Fi.
Google and Amazon
advertise their tablets as offering the best value. The Nexus 7 starts
at $200 and the Kindle Fire starts around $160.
Microsoft says the
Surface, which starts at $500, is better for getting work done, because
you can hook up a mouse, type more easily with an add-on keyboard and
cover, and use some Office applications.
But the bold design of
Microsoft's new tablet software and hardware could be too confusing for
Windows users, who tend to be less tech-savvy, Ms. Rotman Epps said.
"Given the profile of who wants to buy a Windows tablet, complexity is
not a good thing," she said.
For many people, the biggest factor
to consider when choosing a tablet is where it takes them once they turn
it on - that is, which services, apps and stores selling books and
music they can use.
"We've been in love with the glass," said Mark
Curtis, chief client officer at Fjord, a mobile design firm. "Now we're
going to fall in love with what's behind the glass. It's about the
services they can offer."
And, as often happens when a market
matures and becomes saturated, companies are beginning to look beyond
tablets to the next generation of devices, which might be worn on
people's bodies or installed in their homes, Mr. Curtis said.
you think this year's holiday shopping list is complicated, wait until
next year, when it might include Internet-connected watches, eyeglasses
or coffee pots.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service