Why operators will find it hard to sell tablets

On the eve of iPad 2.0, it’s time to think again about this curious new computer. My intuition tells me that this product category will behave very differently from the iPhone and will not be subject to the same sales ramp.

The iPad has been on the market for less than a year but it’s still a puzzle for many. It’s a product that’s often seen as an iPhone product line extension. From a hardware point of view, it certainly seems to be. It has an almost identical internal architecture and uses almost the same software. An engineer would look at it and reasonably say it’s the same thing.

However, from the way it’s used and the way it’s sold, it has very little in common with its smaller cousin. There are plenty of experts who can detail how the products are used differently, but I would highlight the portability of the iPhone makes it suitable for a completely different set of tasks than the less portable but more immersive iPad.

But what I want to dwell on here is how differently the products are sold.

I’ll build the case from evidence that Apple provides. The most important observation is that the iPad is an unlocked product. Although you can hire an operator to provide you with data services for it, the product is designed not to rely on that. As a result the product is effectively “divorced” from the operator channel. This means it does not typically benefit (or suffer) from subsidy.

This may seem an interesting side-note to the iPad story, but I think this is a central pillar of the market strategy. The iPhone was designed around a high-ARPU data plan. I’ve even suggested that the iPhone is nothing more than a data plan wrapped in glass and polished metal. Because it was designed to enable migration of cellular voice users to data plans, it’s priced to skim profits from the migration. At some future point in time when a skimming strategy is no longer optimal, the iPhone might be re-positioned for penetration, but that time is not now.

As part of a skimming strategy, the iPhone has a limited distribution channel. It’s only sold through special agreement with selected operators. Again, timing is crucial. That channel is expanding, but for nearly four years the product has not been positioned for sale through any channel other than Apple retail and Operator retail.

On the other hand, the iPad is marketed for penetration. It had a low price and an unlimited distribution strategy. It could be sold through any consumer electronics product point of sale. And then some. It could conceivably be sold through as many if not more points of sale as the iPod (i.e. tens of thousands.)

It can be sold in any country, can be distributed through middlemen and can be priced arbitrarily [1]. It can be bought in bulk by companies or schools or hospitals. It can be re-sold in a secondary market. It is essentially a perfectly liquid commodity.

Now we can step back and ask why and what are the implications for competitors.

The reason the iPad was positioned asymmetrically to the iPhone is, I believe, because it could be. I believe that the iPhone is sold the way it is (through operators) because that’s the only way it could be sold effectively. Cellular products have always come with lots of fine print, footnotes and asterisks rooted in the regulatory environment that underlies the industry.

The iPad is a product built and sold along the lines of the Mac and the iPod–unrestricted by orifices and aligned with the unregulated environment that computers have always enjoyed. Essentially, for the iPhone, Apple chose to go along with the telecom industry’s rules but as soon as it had a product that did not need to comply to those rules, it ran back to its comfort zone: control.

If we take this to be the cause, the implications for competitors become clearer. Apple is more in its element selling the iPad than it is in selling the iPhone. Other tablet contenders however are in an opposite strategic stance. Almost all the credible tablet alternatives rely on the telecom channel for distribution. The rush to build iPad alternatives is as predictable as the derision that was poured on the product when it was launched.

But the alternative products are positioned in different ways. They are positioned as big phones.

Which brings me to my final point: selling big phones is hard.

These products are not compliant with what users expect from an operator: a service plan. As a result they are also not competitively priced with the iPad. Apple engineered a price for the iPad that makes comparisons extremely favorable. Buyers know the thing they are buying is not a phone so they look at the price carefully.

But the most crucial weakness of alternative vendors is the fact that operators don’t know how to sell tablets. Tablets are small computers. They are bought in the same way that buyers buy laptops: in-store testing. Notice that except for the iPhone operators only provide phone mockups in their stores. This is because they want buyers to discuss their purchase with a sales rep. This is not the way laptop hunters shop. Another tell-tale sign of a disconnect between operators and tablets is that operator shops are physically tiny. PCs (and tablets) need large tables for users to look, touch, heft and fondle. Just on square feet alone, operators and tablets are not a good match.

If you need any more evidence, consider the plight of operator-subsidized netbooks.



  1. I realize that this is not currently true and the distribution is limited but that’s only a matter of supply constraints. There is no theoretical positioning limitation.