If at First You Don’t Succeed in Killing the iPad, Try, Try Again

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I’m pretty sure this statement isn’t going to create a firestorm of controversy: HP’s TouchPad, in its initial form, isn’t going to keep Steve Jobs or anyone else at Apple up at night. I reviewed the tablet for this week’s Technologizer column on, and while it has some good points–especially the WebOS interface–it’s remarkably buggy and short on apps, and it’s too obvious that the hardware was designed in the pre-iPad 2 era.

(MORE: HP’s TouchPad: A Promising Tablet That Needs More Polish)

The consensus among reviewers (here’s The Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg and This Is My Next‘s Josh Topolsky) is remarkably consistent.

In the first year or so after the release of the original iPad, there were a bunch of tablets from big companies that got lots of attention–Samsung’s first Galaxy Tab, Motorola’s Xoom, RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook. All of them were pretty rough around the edges, and none of them proved to be serious competition for Apple. The TouchPad was the last high-profile iPad rival of this sort to arrive, and it now looks like we can lump it in with the others.

Really, there are two basic reasons why all these tablets have floundered:

– They don’t provide a compelling answer to the question “Why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?

– They all shipped with basic compromises–stuff like missing features or software and/or software that was brimming with bugs.

I never expected anyone to trump the iPad–at least not within the first year or two of its release–but I confess that I’ve been surprised at how lackluster the contenders have been so far. When the majority of the products in a category display weird error messages or spontaneously reboot within minutes of being picked up, it’s a sign of general failure on the part of the entire industry.

At this point, it seems reasonable to declare that the age of first-generation iPad rivals is over. If anything comes along that’s a truly competitive alternative, it’ll be something like an Android Ice Cream Sandwich tablet or an HP TouchPad 2 or a product from a new entrant to the market who learned from all the many mistakes that companies have been making to date.

Could hardware makers get so discouraged by failure that they give up and hand the entire tablet market over to Apple? It could happen. One of the reasons that iPods maintained a nearly monopolistic market share forever is that other companies eventually stopped trying very hard to compete.

But I hope that the lesson that manufacturers such as HP take away from the tablet business to date isn’t “this isn’t going to work.” It should be something more like “this isn’t going to work until we ship a product that deserves to be a hit.” In the words of the immortal Nat King Cole, they need to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.

MORE: HP Is Committed to Its ‘WebOS’ Platform (and It Should Be)