Battle Of The Tablet Business Models: Lessons Learned And A Look Ahead

by John Kirk   |   October 5th, 2012

RECAP

We’ve been looking at the tablet business models of Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung and Microsoft. Today we wrap up the series by seeing what lessons we have learned and by asking ourselves what the various business models can tell us about the future of tablet computing.

Lessons Learned

Lesson #1: Subsidized tablet business models are a niche

The subsidized business models of the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Google Nexus 7 are very limiting. They can only be sold where their content is sold, they can only be sold to consumers who readily pay for content or consume relevant advertising and they will have little appeal to business, government or education. Even if they are fantastically successful within their confined market space, their markets will have little overlap with the tablets that focus primarily on the importance of apps.

Lesson #2: Subsidized tablet business models need to be measured differently and judged appropriately

We tend to judge all things tech by the number of units sold or by overall market share. We should, of course, be focusing on profit instead. Profit is the goal and profit is the standard by which tablet business models should be measured.

The subsidized tablets of the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Google Nexus 7 need to be judged, not by sales, not by market share, but by the profits generated by the sale of content and advertising. In a subsidized business model, nothing else matters.

Lesson #3: Conflicting business models are a sign of weakness

With the Nexus 7 and the Surface tablet, both Google and Microsoft have reversed their licensing models and embraced an integrated approach. There is nothing wrong with adjusting one’s business model to fit the times. There’s a lot wrong with having two conflicting business models.

Lesson #4: Platform Matters

Apple has the strongest tablet platform, by far, and it shows in their sales and in their profits.

Amazon seems to understand platform. However, subsidized business models seem geared more toward content than apps. The Kindle Fire is only a year old. We will have to wait and see how the Amazon platform develops.

Google doesn’t seem to get platform, even now. Their weak platform has not hurt them in phone sales (yet) but it’s crippled their tablet efforts. And with the introduction of the Google Nexus 7, Google has made it clear that they think that content, not apps, is what matters most.

Samsung almost certainly understands platform, but they have no control over the Android operating system nor do they control the way Android content and apps are sold. Their only choice is to suffer or get out.

Microsoft gets platform all too well but they are so very late to the game. The Windows Phone 7 platform went nowhere and Microsoft has to be terribly concerned that the Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets may share the same fate.

Lesson #5: Skate to where the puck is going to be

When the market is underserved, products move toward integration. When the market is over served, products move towards modularization. It seems to me that part of the problem with most of the current tablet business models is that their respective companies have misidentified where the market is over served and where it is underserved.

Apple: In my opinion, Apple is on the right path. Tablet hardware, software, and content distribution are becoming “good enough” and are in danger of being commoditized. Apps and ecosystem are still under serving the market and have a lot of room for growth. Apple is adding value and differentiating itself from its competitors by integrating hardware, software, content and apps into a single, cohesive ecosystem.

Apple’s problem is that they have traditionally not been very good at internet services. Look at MobileMe, Ping, Siri, Maps, etc. And internet services are the key to the future of mobile computing ecosystems.

Jonathan Ive is a genius who can design Apple’s hardware but he can’t design a database system that will work with iCloud. Tim Cook’s supply chain prowess turned Apple from a very good company into a great company. What Apple may need to thrive in the future is a Tim Cook for internet services.

Amazon and Google: I think that both the Amazon and Google subsidized strategies are fundamentally flawed. They are creating an integrated hardware and software product designed to add value via the sale of content. But content distribution has already been commoditized. It makes no sense to subsidize hardware sales in order to enhance content sales if the margins on content are de minimis.

Samsung: The problem with the current Samsung tablet model is two-fold. First, their hardware is only one part of the value chain. They do not control the software, content, apps or overall ecosystem. Second, the area where they add value – hardware – is rapidly moving towards “good enough” and commoditization.

Microsoft: In my opinion, Microsoft’s business model is focused on the wrong part of the value chain or stack. Windows RT and Windows 8 is all about creating a superior operating system. But the operating systems currently available from Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS are already more than good enough for most consumers. Microsoft is pouring all of its efforts into an area where consumers are already satisfied or over served. Windows 8 may or may not be a better mobile operating system than either Android or iOS but it is not so much better that it will compel the bulk of consumers to switch to it.

The Future

We obsess over tiny diferences between the hardware and operating systems of the various competitors but it is business models that dictate success or failure. Until those business models change, Apple has, and will retain, the lead in tablets. Both Amazon and Google have chosen to ghettoize their tablets. Their inability to generate substantial profits will be obscured by irrelevant sales numbers. Samsung tablets are nowhere and they have nowhere to go.

Microsoft is trickier. It first has to overcome the hurdle of creating a virtuous platform cycle. If developers can’t attract customers – if customers can’t attract developers – then nothing else matters because the platform will go nowhere. However, if Microsoft can overcome this initial, all-important hurdle, then they have a chance to be relevant. We should be able to gauge just how relevant they’ll be by this time next year.

Conclusion

The future of tablets will be determined by their respective business models. Yet most of the current business models are not even directed towards that future.

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?
  • Rich

    John,

    I think you make a very good point about Apple and Internet services. It does seem that Internet services will be increasingly important in the future and Apple’s record on them (as you mention) has not been the best. I do hope Tim Cook is focused on the need for improvement in this area.

    Mat Honan’s disastrous experience with iCloud in August shows that any cloud can be subject to hacks (or simple failures). Since then Apple has beefed up security on iCloud, but I believe the caveat remains for any cloud service.

    An advisor at Apple tech support said that iCloud is for sharing between devices but not primarily for storage. iCloud stores a little but does not do complete backups; it won’t store music, videos, or apps. For those, you need to use an external drive with your computer. Is this a limitation of iCloud that Apple might want to address in the future? I don’t know the answer to that.

    • pk_de_cville

      Regarding music, iTunes Match will backup all music (including music that is not one of the 25M tracks in the iTunes store) for $25/yr. Match makes it available to all your Apple devices. And Match will upgrade your music to 256-Kbps AAC DRM-free quality if your recording is of poorer quality. Definitely a walled garden, but no one offers a legal peer.

      http://www.apple.com/itunes/itunes-match/

      Apps from the iTunes Store are backed up by definition.
      Leaving video which can be backed up to the cloud via 3rd party offerings.

  • pawhite524

    Thanks for expanding my understanding of the “bigger picture” of business modeling. It was never an area I needed to understand beyond supply and demand basics. I feel smarter since I read these articles.
    Kudos!

    • FalKirk

      Thank you so much.

      • pawhite524

        I am relatively new to posting so the etiquette of these forums is in my “naive zone.”
        Still saying “You are welcome, John” seems like something that is quite OK. And for those who disagree, you can argue with my mother. Good luck with that!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pierre.vandekerckhove Pierre Vandekerckhove

    Thank for these articles, they were very useful to understand the tablet market.
    But I am still for something I cannot find anywhere. What is the size of the tablet market in USA in million dollars ?