The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, that title goes to the MPMan. But not being first didn't hurt the iPod. Thanks to a combination of great marketing, superior design and Apple's elusive 'X' factor, the iPod quickly grew to dominate the market. Roughly 3/4ths of the personal media player market is owned, lock stock and barrel, by the iPod. But the iPod's domination goes well beyond market share or sales numbers.
Check out the picture above. I snapped it while waiting for a flight in Chicago's O'Hare airport. I've seen similar signs in other airports. Five things are listed. Four generic device categories, and one specific product name. Now, any moderately informed consumer will understand at a glance that "iPod" is a stand-in for any pocket-sized media player. Apple so totally dominates that market, and has from an early enough date, that the name of their product line is an acceptable stand-in for the entire device category.
I can guarantee you Apple hoped to do the same thing with the iPhone. The fact that "smartphone" was written up on that sign instead of "iPhone" is evidence that they have failed. The iPhone is still a wildly, preposterously successful device, but it didn't achieve the kind of ubiquity necessary to fully dominate the market. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I don't mean to suggest that Apple somehow "messed up" with the iPhone. It isn't easy for a product to do what the iPod did. You have to do everything right, and launch at the perfect time and under the perfect conditions.
Apple owns 95.5% of the tablet market right now. Obviously, that won't last through to the next year. Decent alternatives have already arrived, and real competition is sure to hit at SOME point in 2011. But it may not. Every possible challenger on the docket so far has at least one or two potential flaws that could sink it. The Adam has an unproven manufacturer. Lenovo's U1 has been delayed regularly. Acer may just straight-up suck at building tablets. All we know right now is that Apple is the first company to make tablets mass-market viable, with Samsung a distant second.
For many consumers, the iPad is the first commercial tablet they ever heard of. The fact that the iPad already holds 22% of the E-Book market share is a sign of just how deeply it has penetrated. If Apple delivers a solid iPad 2 in time to take steam away from the next big crop of Android tablets, odds are good they'll end 2011 still holding an overwhelming slice of the market.
iPad ubiquity is still far from a sure thing. First, Apple has to keep the pressure on and Not Mess Up a single iteration or major update. Second, the next year's competing tablets will need to come up way short against Apple's colossus. The instant we see the tablet equivalent of the Samsung Galaxy S or Droid (in terms of sales/popularity) the odds of iPod-like domination drop precipitously. Third, the tablet market needs to grow very quickly over the next few years...and much of that growth needs to be directly attributable to the iPad. Continued ad campaigns, iPads showing up in movies and film and in celebrity hands instead of competing tablets, and media personalities using the term 'iPad' to refer to tablets in general.
You'll notice that a lot of that is already happening. It needs to continue, and competing devices need to fail to draw anything close to the same level of hype and media attention. Android has been making headlines since it was first announced. Even in its 'heyday', Zune wasn't exactly a magnet for media attention.
Honestly, I don't see the iPad ever becoming ubiquitous in the same way as the iPod. But I've been wrong before, and that level of control is definitely Apple's goal here. The next time I fly through O'Hare, I expect that sign to have a sixth term. Whether it will be 'iPADs' or 'TABLETS' is still up in the air.