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Winners, Losers, and Rising Stars

February /2012

Okay, so I'm not right all the time. But who is? Yes, I was all excited and breathless about Google TV, predicting it would be big in 2011. So how did the first Google TV set top boxes do? Nobody bought 'em, and Logitech ended up taking a $500 million loss. Ouch.

But that loss pales in comparison to the $3.3 billion writedown by HP thanks to the failure of its devices meant to compete with the iPhone and iPad. Seeing all the billions that Apple was raking in, HP bought Palm and used its webOS software as the basis for a new operating system for its phone and HP TouchPad. It was a huge investment, but no one bought their gadgets.

And there was also RIM's $485 million writedown on their BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which also failed to catch on — though sales did pick up when they dropped the price from $500 to $200 in order to get rid of some of their inventory. Unlike HP, which whacked its webOS division, RIM is vowing to forge ahead in the tablet market.

In May of last year I wrote about the iPad and the coming onslaught of tablet computers — over 80 different models expected. It was to be the year of the tablet. Instead, it turned out to be the year of the iPad. Only the Samsung Galaxy Tab sold in any significant number, and that was a tiny fraction of the iPad. Indeed, Apple is expected to sell more than 80 million iPads this year.

But last fall Amazon launched the $200 Kindle Fire, a 7-inch tablet computer running Android. And they sold millions — reportedly at the rate of 1 million per week in December. Finally an iPad competitor. Amazon is targeting the low-end market, and is actually taking a $50 loss on each unit sold. They expect to make their profit by selling books, music, and movies for the device.

Given that the iPad starts at $499, this might be an option for some. Note, though, that there's no camera, that it's WiFi only, and that the screen is nearly 50% smaller than an iPad's. Also it's been criticized as having a "disappointingly poor" performance. Critics say that the touch screen isn't very responsive, that web browsing is slow, that there's no external volume control, and that it lacks important privacy features.

Still, it's selling pretty well, and reviews say that the best thing about the device is how well it integrates into the Amazon environment, including streaming media, reading books, and shopping. Plus, Amazon is promising a fix for the issues that people are complaining about.

As of this writing, there are reports that Google will also be coming out with a tablet like the Kindle Fire. Plus, there are rumors that Apple will also compete on the low end of the market, possibly by selling the current iPad 2 for as little as $299 when it comes out with the new iPad 3 in March.

The Barnes & Noble Nook Color has also gained a bit of a toehold in the market. Like the Kindle Fire, it has a 7-inch screen, is priced at $200, and is mainly oriented toward consuming media. Neither has nearly the functionality of an iPad, which has most of the capabilities of a computer.

It feels like the tablet market is shaping up.

I've also written excitedly about the coming of 3-D TV. It was hyped at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in both 2010 and 2011. But 3-D TVs haven't sold, with sales actually declining in 2011 in the U.S. Overall, sales of HDTV sets are pretty flat, as TVs have become a commodity with little to differentiate them.

The big news in the TV market is the continued rumor that Apple will be coming out with a TV set later this year or early next year. The late Steve Jobs felt that TV was broken — that the remote and settop boxes were difficult to use, and that cable TV didn't integrate well with on-demand streaming Internet TV. In the bestselling Walter Isaacson biography, Jobs is quoted as saying, "I finally cracked it," referring to his years-long quest for a better TV interface. That got people excited. Imagine a Siri-like interface in which you simply tell your TV set what you'd like to watch. Or ask it to find you movies similar to your favorite movie.

My prediction for 2012: tablets will continue to be hot, and an Apple TV set will shake up yet another industry.

This month's hot tips:

Gowatchit.com lets you search for movies across all platforms — Netflix, Redbox, Amazon, Vudu — to see which offers a particular movie. Find free antivirus software at www.komando.com/securitycenter.

© 2012 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen