3 Reasons and 4 Ways to Welcome the Oncoming Tablet Wars

Last Updated Aug 18, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

Many assume that the tablet market is already Apple (AAPL) iPad on one side and any would-be contender on the other. As Harry McCracken has pointed out, the latter category will include at least 32 competing devices by the end of the year. On his list is a range of contraptions, some of which will compete head-to-head with the iPad. Others will focus on different market segments.

But to see this through the lens of "who might take down the iPad and Apple" is to make a big mistake. What we see is the a rerun of computing history from the late 1970s into the 1980s. At the dawn of the personal computer, there was no immediately dominant hardware design, single operating system, or ensconced set of applications. The world was wide open, and it's about to be again.

That means potential danger for companies, particularly in the tech space, but also opportunity that hasn't been around for a good 30 years. The tablet Wild West is about to become an opportunity gold rush, and here are some of the benefits:

  • Experimentation -- For a long time, people have assumed that a PC would look and act one way. Even the split between Windows and Mac was relatively minor, because engineers and developers still approached problems the same way. Now we see screens from 5-inches to a foot in size. Some devices are pure touch, while others will integrate touch with a stylus or with a keyboard. At least one will hinge open and have two screens. Some will run iOS, others Microsoft (MSFT) Windows 7, but there will also be Google (GOOG) Android, webOS from HP (HPQ), and probably something from RIM (RIMM) with the BlackBerry OS. There's no way to tell what will survive the competition. Chances are slim to none, however, that Apple will be the only game.
  • Function follows form -- Product designers will generally talk about form following function. In other words, you design something for what it's supposed to do. But we're at a time when tablets have clearly moved beyond a history of expensive vertical industrial devices. People are getting a sense of what they might want from them, but still don't have it locked down. One problem with a successful product like a desktop or laptop PC is that eventually everyone builds them the same way. You get set expectations and things go into stasis. The form factor experimentation will help shake people loose from what they have come to take for granted. It's as if we had a world of carpenters who all could get hammers and saws, but suddenly found planers and electric sanders and nail guns. Change the associations and you increase the chance that someone will do something new. That means an open window for innovation.
  • New applications -- As forms and functions change, so will the software that runs on the devices. After all, the breaking and reestablishment of associations will spark ideas on the application front.
All the changes will spark new ideas of what people can do with these devices, both as consumers and inside businesses. This is one of the roiling times when young companies can find market gaps and create the new round of giant businesses. It's also a time when the entrenched could easily find the going tough. Here's how to navigate the changes:
  1. Start fresh. Take on the mindset of a visitor from another planet. Throw out all the usual assumptions and work to see customer needs that you hadn't before considered.
  2. Experiment. No one can know for sure how things will work out. There was plenty of evidence that Apple was nervous with the iPad, and for good reason. Remember the Newton. Yet the company took a chance. That's what everyone will have to risk to gain the possible rewards.
  3. Evaluate. Try new concepts, but keep on top to see how they work. Do they actually do what you thought they would? Do people understand the concept and how it connects to their lives?
  4. Correct. Use evaluation to feed back into experimentation and fresh thought. Challenge your decisions and strategies and modify them when things don't work. Mind you, that doesn't mean throw everything out -- just what is off-base.
It will be a scary time for the industry, but a marvelous one, as well. Opportunity is knocking, so be sure to open the door.

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Memorial image: RGBStock.com user costiq, site standard license. Editing: Erik Sherman.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.