Understanding iPad

To date, attempts at categorizing Apple's iPad have been met by resistance and pushback. If you argue that the iPad is nothing more than an oversized iPod touch, you'll be told that it's a new kind of computing device, and not a retread of something that came before. If you position it as a netbook competitor, others will argue that the iPad is additive, not competitive, in this market segment. And if you present the iPad as the next generation of a category of devices that previously included the Tablet PC and Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC), someone will point out the iPad's lack of pen input, handwriting recognition capabilities, and general PC usage. (And of course most Apple people don't even know that Microsoft and its partners had been innovating in this market for a decade already anyway.)

So what is the iPad? I think I might have the answer.

But first, a bit of background. Some find this thought uncomfortable, but things change. And I think there are examples from recent history that will show us how previous evolutions in the PC market explain the iPad and how it, too, will be positioned as a unique type of computing solution.

The first is the Tablet PC. As originally conceived, the Tablet PC was a vertical market product with a slate-like design, pen/stylus input, and a docking station with hardware keyboard and mouse for desk use. Deemed interesting but limited, Microsoft's hardware partners innovated on top of this design and created the so-called convertible laptop, an all-in-one system that could change, Transformer-like, between two form factors: A slate design and a traditional notebook design. These Tablet PCs were more viable from a usage perspective, but were more expensive. And because the Tablet PC debuted at a time when Intel's mobile chips were lackluster, battery life and performance were a problem.

 

Over time, Tablet PC capabilities moved from niche status to the mainstream. Indeed, the very notion of a Tablet PC is somewhat quaint now as most PCs that ship with those capabilities--pen/stylus input with correspondingly compatible screens, touch and multitouch capabilities, handwriting recognition, and so on--are just regular PCs. That is, the Tablet PC went from being a type of PC to being a capability of Windows-based PCs. And these PCs take on many physical form factors, from all-in-one desktop units to truly portable devices that are closer to the original Tablet PC vision.

Second, consider the netbook. Introduced in 2007 as a low-cost and low-capability computing device, the netbook has changed considerably in just three years. The first netbooks ran Linux because it was free, had tiny amounts of onboard solid-state storage instead of a hard drive, and tiny, very low resolution displays. They were designed, primarily, as PC companions and would typically be used as front-ends to the web, with the onboard web browser as the primary UI.

Today, netbooks are nothing more than small, inexpensive Windows PCs. They can be configured with multiple gigabytes of RAM, have true hard drives, run Windows software, and can come with HD resolution screens. This change has resulted in two new categories of pseudo-netbooks, the ultra-portable, which sits between the netbook and a "true" notebook from a size and capability perspective, and the so-called smartbook, which in many ways is a reimagining of the original netbook scheme. Smartbooks come with smart phone OSes, often based on Linux, replacing the traditional Windows or Windows-like OS found in mainstream netbooks. (Car enthusiasts may appreciate this comparison: Over time, as car models get bigger, safer, and more feature-packed, automobile manufacturers introduce new, smaller models to serve the market that was left behind by the maturing legacy vehicle. Thus, today's Honda Civic is bigger than the Honda Accord of a decade ago. And the Honda Fit fills the gap left behind by the bigger Civic.)

That brings us, of course, to the iPad. Introduced with much hyperbole by Apple CEO Steve Jobs in January and released by Apple over the past month or so, the iPad is presented as "a revolutionary device" aimed at key computing scenarios only--"browsing the web, reading and sending email, enjoying photos, watching videos, listening to music, playing games, reading e-books and much more." It looks and works like an iPod touch, albeit it a very large iPod touch, utilizing the same iPhone OS and running the same apps (in ways that aren't optimal given the size of the device), as well as its own apps.

From a platform perspective, then, the iPad is simply part of the iPhone and iPod touch family, which is why I've thought of it in terms of these devices and not as a mainstream computer, like the Mac or a Windows-based PC.

Because the iPad costs less than Apple's portable Macs, and because Macs cost more than PCs, it's tempting to position the iPad as a netbook competitor. In other words, the iPad is to the Mac as the netbook is to the PC: A (relatively) low-cost alternative.

This perspective is flawed for a number of reasons. And even considering Apple's stratospheric pricing model, the iPad's pricing puts it in a unique category. All netbooks cost less than even the cheapest iPad--a whopping $500 for a fairly limited version--and for the iPad's selling range of $500 to $830, a consumer could purchase a truly capable notebook computer. Looked at just in terms of pricing, the iPad is indeed a new computing category, as it's essentially a non-PC device selling for full-featured PC prices. The only entire line of PCs that's more expensive than the iPad, tellingly, is from Apple. (Portable Macs cost $999 and up, and while it's possible to purchase a desktop Mac, the Mac mini, for about $600, that model doesn't include a keyboard, mouse, or display.)

But it is the iPad's lack of true PC capabilities that, I think, dooms this comparison. Though some missing functionality--like printing--can (and no doubt will) be added over time, the iPad will never be a general purpose computing device simply because of the device's input limitations. Much has been made of the iPad being a "consumption device," a phrase that's now repeated around the web with semi-sickening regularity and predictability. But, as it turns out, this is an accurate description of the iPad.

For example, a Mac-using, graphics artist friend asked me recently if the iPad could be used for design, to which I replied, sure, if your designs are done with finger paints. And while there are, and will be, attempts to break beyond the consumption-only design imperative of the iPad, this thing isn't a PC-like Swiss Army Knife of capabilities. Apple is very explicit about this design choice.

Put simply, when you use an iPad, you're typically not contributing to anything, as you can on a PC. Instead, you're simply consuming. And this is how I think the iPad should be compared to the PC: Consumption vs. contribution. Yes, you can do things like answer emails (using the virtual keyboard) on the iPad; there will always be exceptions to any vague generality. But for the most part, that's what this is about. Consumption vs. contribution.

When you go out and about with just an iPad, you're sending a message that you're not going to contribute. You're just there to consume. This is why the iPad is, to my mind, uniquely unsuitable in the workplace. Knowledge workers don't just read documents. They comment on them, edit them, send feedback. They contribute. And contributing means using a device that not just allows editing, but makes that capability a central point of the entire experience. (Multitasking wouldn't hurt either.) The iPad is not a business tool. In fact, for most people, it never will be. (And those who contort their workflow to make this possible are, of course, simply trying too hard to justify their vanity purchase.)

So. What is the iPad?

The iPad is a new type of computing device, just as Apple claimed. It offers a premium user experience for certain kinds of tasks only, and comes with a premium price to match. It is aimed at those consumers who wish to send a message to others, much like Prius drivers or Whole Foods shoppers. These people value style and status above functionality or cost concerns, and will put up with missing features and annoyances like the overly glossy and reflective screen, because they want to be seen as technology savvy trendsetters. (Which, arguably, they are.) And to be fair, they will be rewarded over time with functional improvements, if Apple's history with the iPod and iPhone is any indication.

The iPad is not directly comparable to the iPod touch or iPhone, despite running on the same platform, because the sizes of the devices are simply too different. The iPad is not a smart phone, or a music player you can drop in your pocket. It's not designed for the same usage scenarios, by and large.

The iPad is not directly comparable to the netbook, because it is a premium consumption device and not a low-cost, stripped down version of something else. Netbooks are a way to cheaply obtain multiple PCs for a single household. An iPad is additive too, yes, but it's expensive and does not actually perform all of the functions of a traditional PC at lower speeds. Instead, it performs several key PC-like scenarios very well and at high speed. It is a premium computing experience, albeit a (deliberately) limited one. It doesn't do many things badly, it does some things very well.

The iPad is not a competitor to traditional PC (or Mac) notebooks for the reasons described before--consumption vs. contribution--and is, rather, additive. People who can afford Macs, iPhones, and iPods can afford an iPad too. And if history is any guide, this is pretty much the target market: These people, to generalize--will indeed buy anything Apple makes. And the argument about Apple devices being the BMWs of their market indeed applies here. Sure, a Ford Focus will get you there, but if you can afford the BMW, you're going to buy that instead.

The iPad is not a competitor to Tablet PCs either. These PCs do still exist and arguably provide premium PC experiences, both in price and functionality. But don't be fooled into thinking that Tablet PCs and iPads are comparable. Tablet PCs provide more functionality, but also more complexity--and less battery life and bigger heft and weight--than does the iPad. These are similar only in that the screens of both are touchable and interaction is non-traditional. That doesn't mean they compete. The Tablet PC is a contribution device. The iPad is about consumption only.

But there must be competition, right? We've heard a lot this year about Windows 7-based tablet-like computers, like the HP Slate. Does the iPad have any real competition or is it literally in a class by itself?

Right now, the iPad has no competition that I can see, but a coming generation of slate-like computing devices, most based on Google Android, is on the way. Here, too, history can serve as a guide. Google and its partners will simply ape the iPad model and release me-too computing devices that will no doubt undercut the iPad from a pricing perspective and, at first, offer a less compelling user experience. Over time, and rapidly, Google will improve its Android system so that the slate experience gets better. How Apple responds to these changes will be a matter for history, but I expect them to do well, and to cut prices aggressively to counter this threat.

And what about Microsoft? Can it offer a viable alternative to the iPad on slate-like PCs? Remember that while Microsoft was caught flat-footed when those original Linux-based netbooks appeared three years ago, the company relegated Linux to also-ran status in the netbook market very quickly, and it did so even before Windows 7 was ready. Today, the vast majority of netbooks run Windows. Can this success be repeated in this new slate market?

I don't believe so, at least not with the same rapidity that Microsoft dominated the netbook market. Early reports suggest that Windows 7-based slates, running on x86 hardware, garner about half the battery life as an iPad. And Windows 7 can't run on non-x86 platforms, like ARM. Microsoft does offer a Windows 7-based embedded product that runs on ARM, but that system just shipped and won't show up in iPad alternatives until later this year at the earliest. The jury is still out on whether consumers are interested in something that looks and works a lot like Windows, but isn't Windows. And it's not like Windows CE has ever sold in mainstream numbers before. This is a bit of a wild card.

(I do hold out some hope that Microsoft will deliver its Windows Phone 7 OS on slate devices, as that system--far more than the iPhone OS in the iPad, Android, or Palm WebOS--seems uniquely tailored to larger screens. But there is no sign that such a thing could happen anytime soon. Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices division was just shaken up in a major way, and the company is clearly focused on getting Windows Phone 7 delivered on smart phones this year in a form that, to be polite, is less than complete as it is. If Windows Embedded 7 is a wild card, Windows Phone 7 on slates is a Hail Mary, and a largely imaginary one at that.)

For the short term, I think that Android-based slates are going to be a more direct threat to the iPad than anything Microsoft or its partners can come up with. But even with the success of Android in the smart phone market, it's hard to believe that Android will overtake the iPad anytime soon. Again, it comes down to consumption vs. contribution. As a purely consumption-based device, the iPad is backed by the best content engine on earth, Apple's iTunes Store, which offers an unparalleled and ever-growing collection of music, TV shows, movies, podcasts, educational content, audiobooks, and apps. In fact, the iPad is basically just a front-end to this content. And that content is a strength for which Google has no answer. Neither, for that matter, does Microsoft.

Flaws and all, the iPad is indeed in a class all by itself. It's a new kind of computing device.