It’s been a week since the iPad announcement, and like many in this business, I’ve followed the opinions and punditry. My personal view is that the iPad is going to be a great product for Apple. It will also — and this isn’t quite the same as being a great product — be a commercial success.
There’s a lot of criticism about what the device doesn’t have built-in, or doesn’t support. And there’s been a lot of “why, it’s nothing but a big iPod Touch.” And the usual lists of “must have but missing” features from engineers and developers who are already gnashing their teeth about how useless the iPad will be.
Here’s why we should ignore premature predictions of doom for the iPad.
Sure, there’s nothing shockingly new here. In a sense, it’s a big iPod Touch. Or it’s a slimmed down Tablet PC with integral Kindle. Actually, it’s all of those things.
What we’re forgetting is that Apple’s main strength isn’t necessarily inventing a new category (marketing spin aside), it is in bringing hard-core user research and industrial design to bear on creating devices which end up “crossing the chasm” to the mainstream for a given technology. THAT is what Apple, and Steve Jobs, are good at. I know it’s hard to remember this far back, but in the late 1990’s many of us had MP3 player devices. I had a big clunky one from Creative Labs, that was crafted to look exactly like an old-school Sony Walkman CD player – despite the fact that I was playing MP3 files, somehow it seemed like a good design decision to make the player flat and round and consequently bulky. MP3 players existed, but let’s face it, in 1998 the “mainstream” didn’t have them — your grandparents didn’t have them to take golfing, or walking the beach, etc.
Apple changed that with the iPod. And it wasn’t just the device, it was the ecosystem, and the support, and the deals they made with record labels who were in the midst of watching digital music eat their business.
We also had smartphones. If you’re like me, you probably had several generations of smartphones before you touched an iPhone. I had several Palm phones, a Treo running Palm, a Treo running Windows Mobile, a Blackberry or two, etc. With the exception of Blackberry in business and government markets, smartphones became a “mainstream” phenomenon with the iPhone.
“Tablets” in various form factors have been around awhile too. There are the modified laptops like the Toshibas. I had one at Microsoft, and it was a “tablet” only in the sense that the screen turned around, rendering the entire 6 pound, 2 inch thick laptop a bulky version of a paper writing tablet. Personally, I think the guys at Motion Computing have been the “tablet” makers to watch — thin, small, and I lusted after one apart from the fact that it ran Windows and was underpowered to do so.
So what I think we’re going to see with Apple and the iPad is that they’re taking the best of the tablet PC tradition — i.e., devices like Motion Computing — book readers like the Kindle, and the app ecosystem of the already successful iPhone, and blending it with their unerring ability to do solid industrial design for high technology.
I have no idea what applications the iPad will find. Will it become big in health care, where Motion Computing has made inroads? Will it replace PCs at home for many people with the need only to do email, browse the web, look up information, and manage photos? Who knows at this point, really.
But if you’re betting the iPad will be a failure at this point, just from looking at the specs and what components it does or doesn’t contain, you’re ignoring the big picture. Which is that Apple has an absolutely stellar track record of looking at developing technologies and areas of application, pushing their engineers and designers to produce something easy to use and gorgeous to look at, and then marketing it relentlessly to large, mainstream audiences.
That’s not a guarantee of success every time. But if Jimmy the Greek were still with us, he wouldn’t give you good odds betting against Apple on this one.