CES hasn’t even started, but after sitting through various pre-show press conferences and meetings, one thing is clear: Apple is casting a very long shadow on this show. And many of the products I have seen have been various implementations of something Apple has already brought to market.
This is especially true in two categories.
First is the iPad. Pretty much every tablet vendor here hopes they can develop a tablet that is at least competitive with Apple. Some are going for cheap and basic as differentiators, while others are trying to bring out models with a unique design, tied to Android, and still be cheaper than Apple.
The recent success of Amazon’s Kindle Fire has given them another target to go after, but even this is colored by Apple’s iPad and its strong success in the market. And when talking to all of these “clone” vendors, they don’t even pretend they are doing something new or unique. Rather, many point out that they hope to tag along on Apple’s success and tap into new users Apple may not get because of their higher prices. But make no mistake; all of these are iPad wannabees.
The second product they are all chasing is Apple’s MacBook Air. If you look at Intel’s Ultrabook program, you can see that this is a blatant attempt by the Windows crowd to ride Apple’s successful coattails in design and give their audience something that Apple has had on the market for their customers for five years. Now that is not necessarily a bad thing…it just amazes me that it has taken the WinTel world that long to even catch up with Apple.
But when talking to these vendors who are hopefully bullish about any of their offerings in either of these categories, I sense something else. While they know what Apple already has, the fact that they don’t know what Apple will have in the future really weighs heavily on them. Or in other words, they keep waiting for another shoe to drop.
While they rush to market versions 1 or 2 of their tablets, they know that Apple has the iPad 3 and iPad 4 just around the corner. And while they feel Apple’s prices for the iPads are too costly for most people today, they all fear that Apple could drop prices and seriously impact their chances for success. In fact, to many it is a foregone conclusion that Apple could drop as much as $100 out of their base entry model as soon as this year. And given Apple’s history of maximizing their supply chain as well as pre-purchasing components in huge quantities so as to get the best prices on parts, that is a real possibility.
The other thing I picked up is that many of the Ultrabook vendors are working on what are called hybrids. These are laptops where the screen pops off and turns into a tablet. The first generation of these “hybrids” sported Windows on the laptop and Android on the tablet and the two did not mix well. But the Windows world is counting on Microsoft’s Windows 8 to be the magic bullet that lets Windows 8 with its Metro UI work on the laptop and the tablet and provide a unified experience. And some of the models I have seen are quite innovative.
But, this depends on Windows 8, which means that none of these can get to market until at least mid Oct. And some of the vendors have a sinking feeling that Apple is working on a hybrid as well and that they could beat them to market. And what’s worse for them is that if Apple does theirs as elegant and innovatively as they normally do, some vendors I spoke with feel that they would be immediately behind even though on paper they seem to be way ahead of Apple with their hybrids.
You can even see copied elements of Apple TV in the new Google TV being shown. In fact, all of the smart TV vendors know full well that Jobs told his biographer that he “nailed” smart TV, so these vendors also know that no matter what they offer now, once Apple finally releases a TV solution, they will have to go back to their labs and make big changes just to stay competitive.
One of Apple’s core strategies is to keep ahead of the competition by at least two years. And their competitors have finally realized this truth.
That is why no matter how happy they are about their new offerings at CES this year, they are looking over their shoulders because they know with 100% certainty that Apple could do something significant at any time and send them all back to the drawing board to play catch up.