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Thoughts on the iPad

  • Sunday, January 31 2010 @ 11:53 AM CET
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Like many people working with computers, I've been paying a small amount of attention to the release of the new Apple 'iPad'. Though I don't work much in the Apple ecosystem these days, I still have a certain "nostalgia" for Apple and Mac, given that my very first computer was a Mac+. Unfortunately, after reading around a bit, I am forced to the concludion that the 'iPad' is likely to be a 'miss', rather than a 'hit'.

When I say a 'miss', I'm not talking about the design itself, which is very cool in some ways (and, at least in my view, kind of wonky in others). What I am talking about is something that I often don't, and that is the sales potential. And the problem I see here is that there doesn't seem to be any really overwhelming reason why someone should buy an iPad. Yes, it is 'cool' -- but the number of people who will spend $500-1000 on some new gadget just because "it's cool" is actually (I think pretty small).. But there seems to be little more than that that would lead someone to buy an iPad.

Some object or gadget can become a "must have" for some group of people for two primary reasons: either a) the object does something much better than the alternatives; or b) the object does "more" (in some way) than any given alternative. Certainly 'cool' may be a factor at the margins, but generally some device must offer some real added value for the consumer.

This is true of the series of successful Apple products. The Apple and Mac computers follow the first model. The original Apple II computer provided a real computer for those who had an interest in such things, but not in building their own from scratch. The original Mac (and its immediate successors) was a much better computer (at least for certain segments of the population). It was easier to set up, easier to use, and enable the user to do things that would be difficult or impossible to do with other computers. Yes, it had its limitations, and it was expensive, but at least for certain market segments, it was decidedly better than the alternatives. Similarly, the iPod was a "better" personal stereo (at least for some markets). The second model is illustrated by the iPhone. It was a mobile telephone -- and also an network access device! To be sure, it was not the best way to access the Internet, but as Twain said about the dancing dog, it is amazing that it can be done at all.

Unfortunately, neither of these seems to be true of the iPad. It allows you to connect to things easily -- but only within a really limited collection of "things", and makes a number of types of connections impossible (USB?). It allows you to web browse -- but a lot of content on the web is unavailable. It allows you to watch film and video -- but the resolution and form factor are pretty bad for doing so. It allows you to read e-books -- but the display is unsuited to more than occasional casual use. So, on the one hand, the iPad doesn't do anything uniquely well.

But on the other hand, the iPad doesn't supersede anything else, either. A smartphone is really great because it allows me to do network stuff on my telephone -- that I was carrying anyway! Part of the reason netbooks have taken off is that people are realizing that they can (at least in some cases) replace a laptop. But this is not true of the iPad. It doesn't fit in my pocket and is too big to become an 'always at hand' device, but at the same time too limited to replace a laptop or netbook.

Part of the problem for the iPad will be that the standard for adding a gadget is much higher than for replacing one. If a gadget can replace another, then it only has to add a small amount of function (or even a bit of 'cool', in some cases) to be worth using. But if it is something that I have to carry around in addition to what I've already got, then it needs to be something pretty special. If I'm into reading, for example, then a very good e-book reader may be worth adding to my collection (particularly if it means that I don't have to carry books, too). If I'm already carrying around a phone and/or a laptop/netbook, then there needs to be something really great about th e iPod to make me carry it, too. But that just doesn't seem to be the case with the iPad.

So just who is going to buy the iPad, apart from Apple enthusiasts?

Some are suggesting that it is a computer "for the rest of us", for the non-geeky, not terribly interested in computers, part of the population.

It's often hard for us to remember that there is still a huge percentage of the population that doesn’t make computing a part of their daily lives. Many of them have cheap desktop PCs that they occasionally use for email and shopping, but that’s about it. They don’t have game machines, media center PCs, laptops or smartphones. But one of the reasons they don’t have these things is how they fit their lifestyles. Yet all these people read books, watch TV and movies, listen to music, and more and more, browse the web. From Who Will Buy and IPad?"
This is an interesting idea, of course. But there seems to me to be a serious problem with it. Such people do indeed "read books, watch TV and movies, listen to music, and [..] browse the web" -- but an iPad won't actually let them do anything that they can't already do, or even do anything better than what they can already do. It won't actually be able to replace their "cheap desktop PCs" (even though it may cost more than the PC), it won't allow them to do any real reading of books without headaches and eyestrain, they still have to have their TV (an iPad is not a reasonable alternative even to relatively small modern HDTV), and their personal stereo (an iPad isn't really going to cut it for riding the bus to work or going running in the park).

And since these folks are defined as being non-technophiles, the selling point that "it's cool" is unlikely to take you very far as a pitch.

Which is not to say that some kind of tablet or otherwise "simplified" computing device might not be just the thing for some segment of the market. Indeed, I suspect that it would indeed be just the thing. But any such gadget will need to either be significantly better than what is currently available, providing something that is not currently possible, or will need to replace some existing device. Which means it isn't an iPad, at least in its current incarnation.

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