Looking Forward to 2012: Credible iPad Threats

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Jared Newman

The iPad is a great tablet, but you know what’s even better? Competition. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of that in 2011, as Apple’s rivals rushed out clunky, expensive tablets based on Android Honeycomb, which itself was buggy and short on proper tablet apps. Next year will be better — I hope.

The Amazon Factor

Android tablet makers had three big problems in 2011: their hardware wasn’t cheap enough, the software wasn’t polished enough, and there weren’t enough apps compared with the iPad. Amazon tried to fix these flaws with the Kindle Fire, a 7-in. (18 cm) tablet that costs $199 and runs a heavily modified version of Android. The interface is easy to understand, and because of the small screen size, Amazon could get away with offering Android smart-phone apps slightly blown up to fit the larger display.

(MORE: Amazon: “Kindle Fire is the most successful product we’ve ever launched.”)

You might argue that Amazon’s Kindle Fire is already providing serious competition to the iPad, but as a smaller tablet at a much lower price, the Fire caters to a different market than the iPad does. Amazon’s tablet is a cheap content-consumption device, whereas the iPad is primarily a way to enjoy big-screen tablet apps. These two tablets can thrive independently.

That’s not to say Amazon won’t go after the iPad in 2012. Rumor has it that Amazon is working on new Kindle Fires with 8.9-in. (22.6 cm) and 10.1-in. (25.7 cm) displays, DigiTimes has reported. If true, these tablets would likely undercut the iPad on pricing and would use the same simple interface as the original Kindle Fire. And because the original Kindle Fire is a hit, a larger Amazon tablet would likely draw interest from developers, who would finally start tailoring their Android apps to bigger screens.

Taking this speculation a bit further, a larger Kindle Fire could have a ripple effect on other tablets. Apps developed for Amazon’s tablets could also be made available through the Android Market, alleviating the app shortages of other Android tablets. But those rival tabletmakers would have to slash prices to compete with Amazon. Apple, meanwhile, may decide to keep selling earlier iPads at lower prices, as it does now with the iPhone. Consumers who have no interest in the Kindle Fire may still benefit from Amazon’s making larger tablets, simply because of how other companies respond.

Windows Strikes Back

After two years of staying out of the tablet wars, Microsoft will roll the dice in 2012 with Windows 8. The operating system will sport some radical changes, including an interface designed for touchscreens and an app store for tablet software.

What makes Windows 8 intriguing is that — depending on what type of processor is inside — it’ll still support the classic Windows desktop and legacy software. And because Windows is at the core, all devices will support external mice and keyboards, complete with helpful shortcuts like copy and paste. This opens the possibility of having a single device that can act like a tablet, a laptop or a desktop as users attach keyboards, mice and external monitors. That’s one way to answer the all-important question: Why should someone buy this instead of an iPad?

The first tablets based on Windows 8 are expected in the second half of next year. Because millions of people will get Windows 8 as they upgrade to new PCs, Microsoft’s mission is simple: slow the iPad’s ascent by selling people on Windows machines with touchscreens.

Despite these threats, the iPad isn’t in any serious trouble next year. It remains the gold standard for tablets, and most competitors won’t have a chance. But at least 2012 will bring products with clear strategies for competing with Apple. That’s enough to make me optimistic.

MORE: Why Apple Enthusiasts Are Wrong About Windows 8