I know that no one out there really wants to hear my thoughts on new personal technology, but no one’s forcing you to read this. So here are my first thoughts on the iPad, Apple’s new 10″ tablet.
The resurgence of Apple in the last decade has been based on its ability to simply design and build better products than anyone else, in part because it does a better job of understanding what consumers actually want than anyone else. They are also extremely good and marketing and selling; who would have imagined that Apple would also turn out to be better at retail than any other electronic company? But I wonder if, with the iPad, the Steve Jobs magic is running low.
Of course, as David Pogue says, we are now in Phase 2 of any new Apple product: “the bashing by the bloggers who’ve never even tried it.” The theory is that because Apple knows what we want better than we know ourselves, the thing will sell, despite its obvious shortcomings. In the case of the iPad, the obvious shortcoming is that it can’t replace a cell phone (not only does it not make calls, it’s simply too big to whip out when you need to make a call) or a laptop (unless you use your laptop solely to consume content). Yes, you could add a physical keyboard, but then you’ve got a laptop with a stripped-down operating system. (It has other major shortcomings, like no Flash and no multitasking, but those will no doubt be fixed in later versions.) So Apple has to convince people they need yet another gadget.
You could argue that this is what they did with the iPod, but my recollection is that MP3 players were already a rapidly-growing category at the time; Apple simply built a much, much better one. In addition, the iPod is small, so adding it to your panoply of gadgetry is physically easy; the same is not true of the iPad. (Apple’s other great products–the iMac, the MacBook, the iPhone–are simply better versions of products people already knew they needed.)
The best evidence that the iPad could be a big success is the e-reader market (Kindle, Nook, etc.). After all, people do already carry around books and magazines, and many of them have decided that a Kindle is a lighter and more flexible way to do that. And people who use their laptops mainly to surf the Internet and write short emails could downgrade to the iPad. So maybe Apple is trying to repeat the success of the iPod in that market. But as I recall, the killer early features of the iPod were the click wheel (which made it possible to browse through a large library on a small screen) and, especially iTunes–not the store at first, but the fact that Apple was the first company to make it really easy to rip CDs and synch them to your MP3 player (even if it defaulted to a proprietary format at the time). I don’t think there’s anything comparable here, since the Kindle has already nailed the content distribution problem, and has the biggest catalog. And to be truly useful, the iPad requires you to pay $30/month to use AT&T’s already overloaded network.
The iPad is also going to go the “open platform” route, letting developers create applications for it, which was a large though probably overrated element in the iPhone’s success. But while this was a major step for phones, the iPad will be competing with tablets built using Windows and Android, which were always designed to be open platforms for development.
So, in short, a product that most people don’t need, except for one market where it’s behind. That said, I think it will still be a success, though not nearly as big as the iPod or iPhone. I think so for two reasons: first, the product probably is just better than anything else in the category; and second, the Apple fan base is so big and so devoted that it will have blowout initial sales and then build momentum of its own. As developers figure out new things to do with tablets, they will probably figure them out first and best on the iPad, not whatever bloated and slow version of Windows Microsoft chooses to put on these things.
Personally, I would rather they had put the effort into making a better, faster MacBook Air, but that’s just me.
By James Kwak