No. 9 tech story of 2011: Tales of tablet triumph, tragedy

The tablet market saw some spectacular successes and unmitigated failures in 2011

This is the third post for "My personal, hand-selected top 11 tech stories of 2011." You can read the first two by clicking on the links at the bottom.


Headed into last year's fourth quarter, Apple's iPad owned 95% of the growing tablet market, according to Strategy Analytics.

But dozens of competitors, most running on Google's Android mobile operating system, threatened to challenge the iPad's dominance in 2011, just as Android-powered smartphones collectively surpassed the iPhone in sales.

That's not quite how things worked out. While the rest of the tablet industry collectively eroded Apple's market share to 66% by the current fourth quarter, the release of the iPad 2 in March rejuvenated the franchise, with a reported 1 million being sold on the first weekend they were available.

Just in time, too, because the iPad was about to be challenged by a competing tablet whose company proclaimed upon the product launch that "Amateur Hour is Over."

The company, of course, was Research in Motion, and the product was the PlayBook tablet.

Amateur hour, sadly, was just beginning, for RIM clearly misread public demand for a tablet that can download email only if tethered to a BlackBerry smartphone. Sales were poor, but RIM pretended everything was fine until it couldn't anymore.

No sooner did Apple stare down the PlayBook challenge, another 800-pound gorilla stepped into the tablet ring to take on the iPad -- Hewlett-Packard, which spent $1.2 billion purchasing the webOS mobile platform from Palm for just this kind of opportunity. Analysts touted the TouchPad as, if not an iPad killer, certainly a legitimate iPad contender.

We all know what happened next. The TouchPad was such as spectacular failure upon its release in July, it helped trigger a series of strategic decisions that eventually led to the firing of HP chief executive Leo Apotheker.

Just when it looked like the year would pass without a viable iPad competitor emerging, in late September unveiled the Kindle Fire, a $200 tablet lacking some of the iPad's features, but including access to Amazon's huge inventory of movies, TV shows and e-books.

By early December, data showed the Kindle Fire grabbing 14% of global tablet shipments in the fourth quarter, vaulting past Samsung (5%) to trail only the iPad at 66%.

And in November, Barnes & Noble came out with its Nook Tablet, which, based on early sales, could move into the No. 3 slot by as early as the first quarter of next year.

Next year should see a lot of competition in the the space between the $199 Kindle Fire and the $499 iPad. There's not much future in challenging the iPad at its price point without having a superior product, as RIM and HP found out. And you can't make money selling low-priced tablets for nothing or at a loss, as HP ended up doing with its TouchPad.

As for the PlayBook, it's as dead as the TouchPad, but RIM executives either can't accept it or won't admit it. However, reality is catching up, so don't be surprised if by March the company announces a blow-out $99 PlayBook sales extravanza.

Top 11 tech stories of 2011 links

No. 11: Netflix's public suicide art project No. 10: The cloud rises

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