When the news broke about cut-price UK TouchPads yesterday afternoon, I came up with a cunning plan for people who hadn't already clambered aboard the tablet bandwagon: buy an HP TouchPad just now, and then get an iPad 3 or Android 4 tablet next year.
I wasn't being sarky. At £400ish, TouchPads are a tough sell. At £90, they're a steal. Sure, they're not as nice as iPad 2s, and they don't have as many apps, and the reviews haven't been so good. But at £89, there's no competition: you can't even buy an Android-powered Etch-A-Sketch for that kind of money. Even ASDA's Arnova is a tenner more, while offering considerably less.
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This morning, PC World's online shop summed it up. Sorry, it said. We're out of TouchPads. Fancy a refurbished Advent Amico instead?
I'd rather eat my own eyes.
Can we learn anything from that? I think we can.
If you're HP and you know it, clap your hands
When you see knocked-down TouchPads alongside similarly priced tablets, it's clear that the gap between budget and mainstream is wider than the Grand Canyon: some budget devices have more in common with potatoes or bits of cardboard than they do with iPad 2s. If they were any good, people wouldn't be getting excited about cheap TouchPads - but they aren't, so people are.
And if the HP TouchPad was good enough, people would have been going crazy about it before the price cut. It wasn't, and they weren't.
The mistake HP made, and that others are making, is trying to compete with the iPad by copying it. If you try to do that, Apple wins: it has economies of scale, supplier agreements and a spark of genius that mean you'll always be second best, forced to cut corners Apple doesn't. And you can't massively undercut the iPad either, because it'll either cost you a fortune - as it's currently costing HP - or force you to make so many compromises that you end up with little more than a bit of paper with the word "tablet" written on it.
The lesson from the TouchPad fire sale? You need to - yes! - think different.
Different means Windows 8, gambling that there's a market for a full-PC experience on a tablet. Different means Asus Eee Pad Sliders and Transformers and whatever else ASUSTek's got cooking in its labs. Different means whatever Amazon's working on. We've seen $200 Nook e-readers hacked to become pretty impressive Android tablets; imagine what Amazon's well-resourced Android team could come up with.
I've no idea which, if any, of those approaches will succeed - but at least some of them have a future. iPad-a-likes don't.