As you may know, I have a moderately anti-Apple bias. I spent my nights dreaming of sugarplumbs, fairies, and the iPhone being knocked off its blasted perch. However, though Apple engages in a lot of technical practices that I don’t like and I get endlessly frustrated with the computer people that give them a pass on things that they would excoriate Microsoft and others for, I do not doubt Apple’s design and marketing prowess. If I had any doubts prior to the iPhone, the iPhone relieved me of most of them. I figured the iPhone would be successful, but I didn’t think that it would suck all of the air out of the growing smartphone market. My bad.
So what to make of the iPad? For those of you that don’t pay attention to such things, the iPad is Apple’s entry into the nascent tablet market. They’re hoping to fill a gap that does not really exist (or at least has not been exploited) in the market yet: the area in between smartphones and notebook computers. Natural questions arise as to what, precisely, this means. With today’s announcement, Apple gave their answer to that question: a bigger and more expensive phoneless iPhone (also known as the iPod Touch).
Up until today, as more details have been leaked, I was extremely skeptical of Apple’s chances on this one. For instance, the rumors that it would include the Operating System of the iPhone instead of a lighter variation of the OSX left me underwhelmed. There are a lot of things that people will put up with a cell phone that they will not put up with on a computer-ish device that costs the rumored $1000.
The biggest example is the iPhone’s refusal to support Adobe Flash. I don’t have Flash installed on my smartphone. It’s really not that big of a deal. There are alternate applications for much of what I would use Flash for. YouTube has its own application on Windows Mobile (my phone’s OS) and I think that Rhapsody does, too. If I want to watch a video off the web, I’m more likely to use a laptop anyway. The iPhone has better Flash-circumvention support than Windows Mobile, so it’s even less of a deal for that device. If they want to use something that isn’t supported, such as Hulu, they can just go to their laptop.
I am not sure how well this attitude will carry over to something with the screen space afforded by the iPad. The screen on that sucker begs to watch videos on it and its inability to watch videos that don’t circumvent Flash will likely prove to be a lot more frustrating. And unlike YouTube, Hulu doesn’t necessarily have a whole lot of motivation to make it easier for people to watch shows from more places. For one thing, the networks feeding the content don’t want it to be too convenient lest people start declining to buy the DVDs, watch it on regular TV with all of the extra commercials, or subscribe to cable to get access to the programs. Maybe that will change once Hulu goes to the subscription model, but maybe it won’t. I also know that while I can watch Netflix on a laptop, I don’t know if that would be true for the iPad.
There are other issues along these lines. People are already complaining about the ability of the iPhone to multitask. But it’s a phone, so a lot of people give it a pass. Would they be similarly be willing to give a pass to something with screen space more similar to that of a netbook (where multitasking is possible, albeit not optimal)? There are reasons to believe that it won’t.
What Apple needs to do, then, is to let people know up front that this is not a laptop. this is not a skimmed down laptop. This is not a netbook. This is something different, much more similar to the iPod Touch, and people that want a laptop should buy a laptop. Apple seems to realize this because they’ve been playing up its relationship with the phoneless phone and downplaying it as the middle step to a laptop.
The biggest problem with all of this was poised to be the price. Apple’s control over perception may be impressive, but it is not without limitation. People that pay more for an iPad than they could pay for a laptop are going to expect it to do laptop things. There’s just no getting around it. So when rumors were that the iPad was going to cost $1000 or so, I just couldn’t see it being embraced. Yesterday, however, they announced that while people that want to spend a grand can (Apple never likes to displease that brand of customer) the starting price is actually $500. That actually opens up some possibilities.
Granted, $500 won’t get you a whole lot. People that think that they’re getting a neato netbook are going to be just as disappointed as the people I was suspecting were thinking would get a laptop. But people that think that they’re getting a more muscular, more versatile, and more expensive Kindle should be relatively satisfied with the low-end iPad. Right now Kindle sales themselves have not been very good and that’s an important point. However, Apple does manage to address some of the bigger reasons that I myself would not buy a Kindle. Among other things, it appears as though I will be able to read digital comic books on it in color. It appears as though there will not be the PDF limitations that the Kindle has. That’s even leaving aside the sorts of things that nobody would ever ask a Kindle to do such as play music and video. Which brings me to the other potential buy that could come out of it relatively satisfied: the potential iPod Touch buyer. It addresses some of the reasons that I have not bought an iPad touch: Namely, it answers the question “What can this thing do that my cell phone can’t and is it worth buying a separate device for?” The answer to that was previously “It can run iPhone applications!” That answer was insufficient. “It has a more usable keyboard” and “it has a larger screen” on the other hand, do provide a sort of answer to that question.
Does that provide a $500 answer? Right now, it doesn’t. At least, not for me. It’s something I’ll keep an eye on. The multitude of applications that are available on the iPhone/iPT but not on its competitors is a seductive army. Despite Apple’s unconscionable app-blocking policy, there is simply no other smartphone platform that can really compete if I simply pretend that the applications blocked simply never existed. Advanced users will jailbreak their iPads the same way they jailbreak their iPhones. Non-advanced users like my sister-in-law will simply go on as though the programs don’t exist. The counterquestion is, though, how useful are these little apps on a device that’s not as portable as an iPhone? A lot of the value of iPhone applications are that they are on a device that you have with you nearly at all times.
But the biggest question to whether or not the iPad will succeed or fail has less to do with Apple and more to do with us. Contrary to what Appleheads say, the iPhone did not invent an industry. It belatedly joined a burgeoning one and then dominated it. The distinction is important. Had the iPhone never been invented, there may be less smartphones out there than there are today, but there would still be a whole lot more of them than there were just a few years ago. The current market for tablet devices just does not have the same sense of destiny as did smartphones three years ago. They won’t be able to rely on the “I was thinking of buying this sort of product anyway, so I should buy Apple’s variation.”
How big of the iPhone’s market segment is this? I think it’s a lot more than most techheads realize. I like to use my sister-in-law as an example. She’s happy with her iPhone, but she chose the iPhone after she decided that she wanted a more muscular phone. The likelihood that she will buy a tablet of any sort is remote. That leaves the market mostly relegated to techheads. Techheads are probably most likely to be take notice of the things that the iPad is not capable of doing. There are many that will give Apple a pass because it is Apple, but those that are not Apple partisans are less likely to join the bandwagon this time around. In other words, I see the iPad running into the same sorts of problems as the Kindle, except moreso.
At the same time, though, I am really reluctant to actively bet against Apple. The success of the iPhone, which I understand completely on one level, completely elludes me on another. I’ve always been a little surprised at what Apple fans are willing to pay for when a product is made by Apple, but the iPhone demonstrated pretty clearly that they know something even about non-Apple customers that I don’t. As a computer guy, I tend to be more understanding of the average user than a lot of other computer guys, but apparently even I have my blind spots. So I really don’t know whether the iPad will succeed or not.
Jon Last makes the following astute observation:
With nothing more than the iPhone OS, it’s a super-slick smart-phone/Kindle/netbook hybrid. Only it lacks a smartphone’s portability, the Kindle’s readability, and the netbook’s power.
That could be a bad thing, although it could be a good one. If someone doesn’t need it to be quite as readable as the Kindle because they’re so used to reading off screens, doesn’t need it to be as portable as a smartphone because they’ve got the phone thing squared away and don’t need a or have with it a PDA, and doesn’t need a netbook’s power because they have a notebook or netbook… it’s a great way to have something that’s not as restricted as the Kindle, more portable than the netbook, and not attached to a phone plan like a cell phone is. He asks if we really need a third device. No, but the same could be said for a second device and people have been predicting the death of the desktop since forever and yet people still buy them.
So… it looks like it could be a pretty neat toy. But who will want to pay for it? Apple can often get away with lower sales numbers because they have such high margins, but they seem to be taking a different tact with this one. At $1000 a pop, they could get away with only the enthusiasts buying it, but does $500 provide that kind of margin? It seems to me that they’re actually banking on more widespread adoption for this to be considered something less than a failure. Apple has succeeded in the past largely by not playing that game. Now the question is… do they have the constitution to play and win it?
In addition to know knowing whether or not the iPad will succeed, I also don’t know whether I hope it succeeds or not. The more I think about it, the more attractive I find the notion of tablets. The more I like the idea of an iPad, even if I am unlikely to purchase one myself. If Apple is successful, I have no doubt that competitors will come out with their own products and I suspect that what the competitors come up with I will be more likely to buy myself. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if the smartphone market has been actively damaged by the iPhone by this point. It was previously beneficial to the industry and could remain so if it gets knocked off its perch and more open-minded competitors take over. But if iPhone’s (relative) domination does not stop, we’re going to be stuck with a standard where the hardware, software, and user is largely controlled by a single entity. Everything computer people accuse Microsoft of doing… except this time far more real.
Addendum: The Atlantic has a couple pieces on the iPad that are worth reading, one pro and one con. David Indiviglio makes a point that had occurred to me that I didn’t really explore, which is that this is a better device for good economic times when people are looking for cool things to spend their money on. It’s a luxury device in non-luxirious times. That could prove to be a problem. Derek Thompson takes a more positive view.