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Monday, February 1, 2010

iPad, You Pad, We all Pad

The outpouring of opinions, punditry, glee, and bile since last Wednesday has been pretty predictable.  Apple fanboys have waxed ecstatic, Apple naysayers have snarked and pointed to missing features, all the usual pundits have told us why the iPad matters desperately or doesn't matter at all as the case may be.  I thought I'd wait awhile before saying anything, in the hopes that the uproar would have died down enough for a rational conversation to take place.  Or one side of one, anyway, in case my two readers are out of town.

First, did Apple get it right?  I think they did as well as they ever do in a first product introduction: they showed us a first generation product which will create a new product category, and perhaps even a whole new market.  It's not perfect, and it's not yet complete, but it's out there as a stake in the ground.  And it's credible enough that it freaked Amazon into trying to extort Macmillan into submission by delisting their books.  Macmillan was one of the publishers who's been talking to Apple about ebook business models for the iPad, and their CEO went to Amazon on Thursday to say, "We like what Apple proposes and we want you to go along."  Amazon's response was "Oh, crap, it's Stevie and the Pirates! Run out all the guns!"

Let's review Steve Jobs' strategy for introducing the first generation of game-changing products like the iPod, the iPhone, and the iMac:
  1. It has to be recognizably an Apple product, with the level of fit & finish,  industrial design, and usability that we've come to expect of an Apple product.
  2. It should open a new market niche, or one whose current occupants haven't been able to get a handle on.
  3. It doesn't need to have every feature you can imagine, but it should be immediately useful to a large market segment, with potential enhancements that will pull in still more market.
  4. The target market is never programmers, computer geeks, sysadmins, or engineers.  The emphasis is always on helping people get their tasks done, or on having fun with the product.
  5. It doesn't need to be the cheapest product out there, or the most customizable, or the fastest.  It should excel in enough areas to be the best choice overall for a large part of the market in the long term.
  6. It should allow Apple to create an ecology to go with it: iTunes for iPod as an example.
I claim that the iPad fits these goals, and that it is in position to create a whole new market segment that isn't served well by existing products.  That market is the portable media server for the individual: a system to create, store, and communicate documents, books, images, video, and music, and allow access to the web and all forms of instant and asynchronous communications.  It has a screen big enough to see photographs, videos, and high-quality book text without squinting; it has a user interface that is useful in places other than at a desk or standing motionless¹ in line at the airport; and it would appear that it has enough power to be pleasant to use for the kind of simple tasks we've seen so far.

One point that seems to have been generally overlooked is that, for the purposes of its intended market, the iPad is not a computer.  It's an application engine for a whole host of applications.  Programming it,  customizing it, or having it maintained by the user are irrelevant objectives for the market in which it will be sold.  And that market is vastly larger than all of the technical users who would want to write their own apps or install a Linux distro on it.

I'm not the only one of the opinion that the iPad makes some sense.  Charlie Stross and Stephen Fry seem to agree.  Of course, both of them are tarred by the same brush I am: they're Mac users.  Perhaps not all the time, or for all tasks, but they own and enjoy using Macs, as do I.  So our opinions are not likely to be of interest to those who either loathe Apple entirely, or are only interested in what to Apple are edge-case uses of the product.

Some of the enhancements that Apple is going to make over the next 2 or 3 iterations of the iPad product line are pretty obvious.  They'll add some apps that weren't feasible for the iPhone such as the iLife applications, giving the iPad the means for creation, manipulation, and viewing of photographs, music, and movies.  They'll add 2 cameras: one facing out for taking photographs and movies of the world, and the other facing the user to allow video chat.  But there are bound to be enhancements that won't be obvious, that even Apple might not yet forsee. That's because nobody knows yet what the full range of applications will be for this kind of product,  or what use they'll be put to for which some new software or hardware will be helpful.  This is why creating a new product category can be so profitable for a company like Apple that's willing to accept a little bit of a leap into the unknown.  I predict that the real killer apps for iPad won't be things we expect.

¹ Think about using it to create maps of an archeological dig in the field, or record airplane or bus or train maintenance results on the tarmac or the rail.  I'm thinking about plugging my digital camera into it and using it check and touch up my photos in the field.

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