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Competitors Aim to Take a Bite Out of Apple

- 2011.01.04 - Tip Jar

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"Get Apple."

Not a movie title - at least not yet - but I suspect it will be the theme for the high-tech office in 2011.

Apple has surfed over economic slowdowns with a combination of successful products and services. Originally named Apple Computer (to avoid confusion with the Beatles' Apple Records), the company dropped Computer from its name in 2007 to reflect its broadened product range - not just smartphones and music players, but music and book sales and more.

Generally, Apple hasn't been the first to market any particular product or service - there were music players and smartphones available before its iPods and iPhones, for instance. Microsoft has been promoting the Tablet PC since 2001 - nearly a decade before Apple's iPad launch.

And not every Apple product is a bestseller. Apple TV, for instance, remained a modest seller despite several years on the market, although the latest version seems to be changing that.

Nevertheless, by building easy-to-use connections between personal computers; devices like phones, tablets, and music players; and online services, Apple has repeatedly shaken the high-tech market.

Expect 2011 to be the year when Apple's competitors gear up to strike back. Among the battlefields:

  • Ultralight laptops. Apple released new models of its slim and light MacBook Air laptops late in 2010. Look for increased competition from the likes of Toshiba, Panasonic, and Lenovo in 2011.
  • Smartphones. Phones running Google's Android from a variety of manufacturers are evolving rapidly, adding features and approaching the iPhone's ease of use. The range of apps available from the Android Market is growing with an increasing number of paid apps making it a more attractive platform to developers. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 had a relatively lackluster late 2010 release, but that company is nothing if not persistent, and its phone operating system (like Android, available from multiple manufacturers) has some promising features. HP hopes you won't count Palm out of the running, with the launch of version 2.0 of that company's Pre smartphones, while RIM is also updating its BlackBerrys to a new operating system version.
  • Tablets. Samsung's Galaxy Tab, released late in 2010, has already sold over a million units; RIM's PlayBook tablet is expected in the spring, along with a Palm-powered HP tablet. A host of competing models will show up in 2011, most running some variety of Android, though some will sport Windows 7. I've been working with a Galaxy Tab for the past few weeks and have found it a very usable competitor to Apple's iPad.

It's not all about hardware, though. Apple's bricks-and-mortar stores have proved popular with consumers. As of late 2010, the company had more than 300 stores worldwide. While PC manufacturers like Dell and Gateway failed at their branded retail outlets, HP opened its first North American store in Vancouver in December.

Expect "app stores" to similarly proliferate, following the examples of Apple's iTunes and Google's Android Market. Ironically, Apple is among the imitators with its Mac App Store promising one-stop software shopping for users of its computer platform.

Licensing issues - especially outside the US - have limited competitors to Apple's iTunes for music, TV, and video sales. Expect increased competition in 2011.

It remains to be seen how successful all these attempts to knock Apple off its pedestal will be.

Always a Step Ahead

For years, Microsoft and a host of PC gadget makers tried (and generally failed) to compete with Apple's iPods. Part of the problem: Apple is a moving target. By the time competitors can bring a product to market, Apple has a next generation device on the horizon.

Apple's competitors can generally provide more features at a lower price, but Apple has succeeded by realizing that many customers are prepared to pay a higher price, as long as fewer features translate into less of the frustration that too often accompanies products in the high-tech office (and the high-tech home). LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver, January 4-10, 2011, issue #1106.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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