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Tablet table shows Apple's core advantage

We've long heard that Apple derives a unique advantage by controlling both hardware and software — and anyone who recalls the Mac clone years can attest to the inverse. But according to a study by IHS iSuppli, which performs industry analysis of gadgets based on teardowns and factory reports, the advantage goes deeper, because of the way Apple designs its hardware components.

It's not only the company's software/hardware integration, but an almost maniacal control over chip and battery design. Those factors combined, and Apple has an advantage even over companies such as RIM and HP, which, on the surface, take a similarly vertical approach.

"Apple takes a vertically integrated approach to its products, from the operating system to the user interface, to the hardware design, down to the selection of individual parts used in the device," wrote Wayne Lam, senior analyst, competitive analysis, at IHS, in a blog post

"For example, Apple even uses its own applications processor design in both the iPad and iPad 2. In contrast, Android tablet makers buy those capabilities from the likes of Nvidia, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm. This gives Apple greater control in multiple areas of product development."

The greater control leads to efficiency and lower cost, says IHS, not to mention the ability to set standards for pricing and screen size. And because of the software control, thinner batteries and less RAM don't translate directly to loss in performance.

Still, Apple may not be above peer pressure. Motorola was the first to jump with a dual-core processor in the Xoom, though Apple swiftly followed suit with the iPad 2. In 2012, IHS expects a surge in quad-core processors in tablets; whether Apple or someone else is at the forefront of that is anyone's guess. (Steve Jobs probably knows, but I doubt he'll say.)

The question, of course, is whether or not this competitive edge is unbeatable.

In the phone business, certainly, competitors such as Samsung and HTC have cumulatively ganged up and beaten Apple in the overall market, while consistently matching price and features. But the phone business is unique — carriers offset costs in order to lock down customers who pay monthly. The tablet business, as I mentioned recently, works more like the PC biz, and because of that, these differences impact our wallets a lot more directly.

I really want to see Android tablets thrive, particularly ones I like such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. But evidence like this just supports what I've said in the past, that the iPad has a stride that Android tabs are having a hard time trying to break.

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