Apple has enjoyed a huge success with its iPad media tablet, so it will undoubtedly be followed by a flood of workalikes. There were, of course, iPad-style devices before the iPad came out, including machines from Archos and Nokia, but none of them enjoyed much success. However, if the iPad really has created a new market then other companies will compete for it. The problem lies in trying to define a category that could also include PC-based tablets running Microsoft Windows 7, and phone-based tablets running HP’s WebOS, Windows Phone 7, Google Android and other types of Linux.
Market analysts usually define market segments in three ways: by the form factor, by the technology they use, and by the tasks they generally perform. This usually works well, even though both the technologies and the tasks overlap. The problem is that while the iPad is neither a portable PC nor a mobile phone, some of its competitors will be. The leading research companies, Gartner and IDC, are therefore looking at their mobile device definitions, and IDC could start a 'media tablet' category.
It’s trickier than it sounds. IDC research manager Eszter Morvay told me that "whilst the current IDC standpoint is to exclude this category from the PC tracker because of the non-x86 processor and non-PC OS, there will indeed be products with x86 processors and Windows OS. At IDC we'll have to be clear about how we define these products and how we track them in order to have a sensible and useful view of the market and in order to avoid double counting."
The iPad challenges current definitions because it’s cleverly positioned between the markets for MP3/media players and for personal computers, while being cleverly designed to replace neither. From the technology point of view, it’s an enlarged version of an iPod touch, which no one would mistake for a PC. But still, most of the things that people actually do with iPads have, until now, been the province of the personal computer: web browsing, social networking, checking email, a bit of messaging.
There’s always a chance that iPad sales will crash after the first round of buyers have bought their second machine: the one with the camera they need for FaceTime, which Apple cunningly left out of the original. The iPad is great fun to use and sells mainly because it’s a shiny new toy, but it could still go the way of the Furby (40 million sold) or the Tamagotchi (over 70 million).
However, we also know that as markets grow larger and richer, they are able to support new categories of device. For example, you can still buy a general purpose 'family car' descended from the Model T Ford, but there are many other options from single-seater sports cars to giant 4x4 'people carriers'. There’s no reason why a computer market that supports handhelds, portables, desktops and servers can’t grow to include media tablets.