Switched On: Between a Nook and a hard place

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

In the 1988 comedy Coming to America, a blatant McDonald's rip-off named McDowell's draws the legal ire of the empire built by Ray Kroc. In explaining his pathetic defense that includes noting that McDowell's uses golden arcs instead of golden arches, the eatery's manager notes that while both the Big Mac and his Big Mick both include the 1970s jingle-immortalized ingredients of two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions, the McDowell's flagship burger bun has, in fact, no sesame seeds.

This state of differentiation isn't a far cry from what characterized some of the earliest 10-inch Honeycomb devices -- a few fractions of an inch of thickness, a higher-quality display, a full-sized USB port, an hour or two of running time and some bundled apps constituted how many of the tablets asserted their competitiveness. Of course, there was the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer with its keyboard add-on and its follow up, the Eee Pad Slider, which finally brought an integrated one. But whether it's been from a lack of options for manufacturers or disadvantages of the overall Honeycomb approach, larger Android tablets have made limited inroads versus the similarly sized iPad and are now going after it more aggressively on price.

A few Android tablet makers such as Acer, HTC and Samsung -- which has returned to the tablet screen size it pioneered with the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus -- sought out smaller sizes such as 7-inch. This seemed to be a greener field in which to grow as Apple has all but vowed not to create an iPad in that screen size. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that RIM tried to command the same price as the iPad for its 7-inch PlayBook.

Within the past few weeks, though, that has all changed as those old rivals from internet book-selling days -- Amazon and Barnes & Noble -- have moved forth from the limitations of e-paper and released their (most, in the case of Barnes & Noble) full-fledged tablets. Seeking to build businesses from content and software, their prices are below $250 and the still-attractive Nook Color hanging on to meet the Kindle Fire's $200 price point. Many were so optimistic about the Kindle Fire (or pessimistic about most of its competitors) that they predicted the tablet would be the #2 tablet this holiday season before it was released or even revealed.

Apple may be down on the 7-inch form factor, which is not as satisfying for Web browsing or magazines, to name a few types of media. However, it serves well for a range of experiences such as books, music, e-mail, many games, and of course video, which has become Amazon's next media battleground. (Before tablets stole their thunder, 7-inch was a popular screen size for the leading portable video device: portable DVD players.)

Without a doubt, the competition is finding itself increasingly squeezed on the high end by the iPad's maturity and at the low end by e-reader progeny. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have done a great job in promoting their products to their millions of customers. The Kindle products have been a home page staple for one of the Web's most visited sites. And Barnes & Noble is redoubling its Nook's sales efforts, including television advertising and a new store section devoted to the tablets.

On the other hand, as Amazon and Barnes & Noble move into the broader world of tablets, they (particularly Barnes & Noble) move further away from their the core customer base (including avid readers) advantage that helped make their e-readers successful. Would the Kindle Fire look so competitive if Amazon had created a $399 10-inch version in the shadow of the iPad, 10-inch Galaxy Tab and other Honeycomb tablets?

There's no magic in matching the Kindle Fire's price; Lenovo has already done this with its IdeaPad A1. The key challenge for other tablet makers lies in the market's youth and malleable definition. Apple essentially defined it last year with the iPad and Microsoft will attempt to redefine it next year with Windows 8. In the range of smaller screen sizes, though, the success of the Kindle Fire and Nook tablets could form a consumer expectation of a tablet that is not a broad computing experience like the iPad but a media experience that weighs heavily on a set of integrated services provided by the same entity providing the content. That could become a far harder barrier to break through than a price point.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.