In sport, the received wisdom is that leading the pack from the start and staying in front is the hard way of doing things.
Early pacesetters are there to be shot at, the maxim suggests, and spending too much time looking over your shoulder at would-be champions hinders your chances of staying on top.
There is no doubt that, a year after it effectively created the market with the launch of the iPad, Apple remains the runaway leader in the tablet space. For many, Apple is the tablet space.
But 2011 will see a swathe of pretenders to the throne hitting the market, led by RIM, which recently unveiled the hotly anticipated BlackBerry PlayBook. Can Apple maintain its dominance with so many big players gunning for its crown? And will vendors giving their shiny new devices the hard sell simply eat into sales of other form factors?
At a recent CRN roundtable, the tablet PC and what it means for the channel was put under the spotlight. Taking part was Paul Bolt, director of marketing and partner management at Insight UK, alongside two analysts: Salman Chaudhry, product manager for mobile computing at Context, and Shaun Collins, managing director of CCS Insight.
Context's Chaudhry believes that Apple's challengers have an awful lot of ground to make up, and that the race has not even begun in earnest yet. But Apple will not have things all its own way later in the year, he adds, and RIM will be the biggest thorn in its side.
"I still see tablet as a synonym for iPad, and we are likely to see this continue to be the case for the next three or four months," says Chaudhry.
"But I see RIM launching the PlayBook as being the game changer. The iPhone was associated with smartphones for such a long period. Then HTC and BlackBerry came along and chipped away at the idea that only the iPhone was a smartphone. I think we are likely to see that in the same way with the PlayBook launch."
CCS Insight's Collins agrees that Apple will remain by far the dominant force -- at least for the time being. It has been the only tablet worth writing home about for some time, he observes.
"When we're looking at the product portfolio out there at the moment, the iPad was frankly the only tablet of any note that was out there until relatively recently," says Collins. "It is such an immense product - both for Apple and for [people] as individuals, in terms of the way we perceive it - that it seems to be overshadowing almost everything else that is out there."
Recent research from Nielsen reveals just how far the rest of the market has to travel to catch up with Apple. The vendor now holds 82 per cent of the US tablet market, and it is light years ahead of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which is the second most popular device even though it accounts for just four per cent of the market.
The Dell Streak and Motorola Xoom sit at three and two per cent respectively.
But Collins points out that some big players are set to swoop into the market sooner rather than later.
"Let's not forget that we have some mighty organisations that are also interested in this space," he says. "LG, Samsung, Motorola, Cisco, HTC and others will bring tablets to market over the next six to eight weeks. Increasingly, users and resellers will have choice.
Although it will still be ‘iPad equals tablet' for a little while, I think we are going to see a deployment beyond that, and I think we will start to see a differentiation, a portfolio spread - and a price spread - that will allow people to make different choices, either in the enterprise or individually."
Insight's Bolt claims that the entrance of top enterprise vendors into the tablet arena will alter the market dynamics in the B2B space. He also says that the IT market's biggest names could drive adoption of the device by dint of the respect they command from CIOs.
"I particularly see the HPs, the Ciscos and the RIMs as accelerating adoption, because there is a loyal installed base already, the products are proven and there are management tools and systems around them," says Bolt.
"While those tools exist across pretty much every operating system today - and there are those control mechanisms - I think that the loyal installed bases from those traditional B2B brands will certainly reach out to the Ciscos and the RIMs of this world to understand how a tablet offering can fit within their existing infrastructure."
Other figures in the Nielsen research also hint at the possibility that, for some users, tablets may be seen as a replacement for more long-standing form factors, rather than an additional piece of kit.
About a third of tablet owners surveyed said they used their desktop or laptop less often or not at all since getting their hands on their new device. More than three-quarters reported using their tablet for certain tasks they would previously have performed on a bigger form factor.
Unsurprisingly, the ease of transporting the tablet was the top reason for choosing it over other platforms, having been picked by 31 per cent of respondents. An easier-to-use interface or operating system was selected by 21 per cent.
Figures from YouGov shed even more light on the extent tablets may cannibalise sales of other form factors. The research house quizzed about 1,000 UK tablet owners and found that 76 per cent had purchased the device in addition to a PC.
Some eight per cent indicated they had bought theirs instead of a PC, or to replace an existing machine. The remainder were given a tablet or deemed the question otherwise inapplicable to them.
The cannibalisation of existing hardware sales looks set to increase, if YouGov figures are to be believed. Some 13 per cent of UK adults suggested they plan to buy a tablet device, and 16 per cent of these had the device pegged as a replacement for their laptops. A further nine per cent planned to replace their netbook with a tablet, the figures suggest.
Once tablets slip below the £250-per-unit barrier, adoption will really begin to accelerate, according to YouGov.
"At the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas earlier this year, more than 80 different tablets were announced for launch later in 2011," says Russell Feldman, associate director for technology and telecoms consulting at the pollster.
"And YouGov expects most of these tablets to fail to achieve widespread distribution. However, our analysis clearly demonstrates that, if the pricing is right and the device is marketed at the correct audience, then there is significant latent demand."
Bolt maintains that the channel's best means of capitalising on this demand is to focus on educating end users about the new technology. The consumerisation of IT and the proliferation of mobile devices among the workforce have given many CIOs headaches in recent years.
Acting as the archetypal trusted adviser is therefore the key to success, Bolt says.
"This is really about educating customers for us: what are the benefits of this form factor? How can I deploy it in my infrastructure? How do I secure it?" he says. "This is not just a box in a warehouse that moves through a supply chain simply because there is demand for it. This is about open dialogue with our clients and about ensuring that we are able to smoothly and securely transition those looking to adopt tablets into that environment.
"For us, it is that education and that assisted sell that really stand out as the market opportunity at the moment."
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