Tablet options proliferate for publishers, but Apple maintains control

In mostly separate announcements over the past two weeks, Google, Motorola, Time Warner, HP and Yahoo have all taken aim at Apple and its growing dominance of the digital tablet and mobile publishing markets.

But while the announcements are significant — an updated Android OS, several new digital tablets, a personalized news service, and tablet magazine subscriptions — even in aggregate none seem positioned to challenge Apple or the iPad in the short-term.

Google’s new Honeycomb OS — also known as Android 3.0 — was unveiled on Feb. 2. The new OS is designed specifically to support touch-screen tablets, the first version of Android to do so.

The early reviews of Honeycomb are good. But its success is dependent on manufacturers building tablets that can compete with the iPad on features, and as importantly, on price.

The first tablet to launch with the new OS will sell for $800, which is $300 more than the least expensive iPad. The tablet itself — the Motorola Xoom — looks very competitive, except for its cost.

For most consumers the higher price is a non-starter. Android tablets will need to be priced under $500 to take on the iPad and to become a serious platform for periodical subscriptions.

However, publishers looking for alternatives to Apple’s restrictive ecosystem do not want to wait. Last week, Time Warner disclosed plans to offer magazine subscriptions on both Android and HP mobile devices.

Time Warner’s first announcement was in conjunction with HP’s unveiling of two new smart phones and a tablet. The devices all run the mobile WebOS developed by Palm Inc. and acquired by HP last year.

Staci Kramer reported in paidContent that Time, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated will be available on the HP devices when they are released. As Kramer noted, Time Warner titles sold on the iPad are still only available as individual issues, not by subscription.

News Corp.’s The Daily, which also launched this month, does allow recurring subscriptions via iTunes. Apple has indicated the service will be extended to other publishers but has not yet announced a date or specific terms for its use.

On Thursday, Russell Adams reported in The Wall Street Journal that Time Warner would also make Sports Illustrated available by subscription on Android devices. Adams wrote the magazine will be offered in “multiple subscription offerings that offer various combinations of the magazine in print and electronic form.”

Publishers are increasingly turning to similar “read anywhere” strategies to attract and retain subscribers. A common complaint about iPad magazines is that readers are currently expected to pay separately for print and tablet editions.

At Forbes, Jeff Bercovici writes that Sports Illustrated’s subscriptions, bundling print and digital platforms, will be available on the Samsung Galaxy Tab, as well as Android smart phones for $4.99 a month or $48 a year.

Yahoo also jumped into the mobile publishing fray last week with Yahoo Livestand, a “personalized newsstand” that intends to offer content from a variety of digital magazines.

Yahoo is describing Livestand less as an “app” and more as a platform that provides tools for publishers to reach audiences on mobile devices. The product will launch initially for the iPad with Honeycomb and smart phone support to follow.

Yahoo’s approach here is to aggregate multiple magazine titles onto one platform, and then serve content to the reader based on personalization features and preferences.

Publishers will be able to offer subscriptions to their content, but it is not clear how that capability would integrate with Apple’s forthcoming iTunes subscription program.

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