It’s been about 24 hours since the long anticipated keynote address and unveiling of the Apple iPad. I’ve had some time to reflect on what this announcement will mean for Apple, for consumers and for my own personal use.
On Wednesday morning, it seemed like even the least tech savvy folks knew that ‘Apple was announcing a tablet!’. (Major props to those sites that were gracious enough to cover this event via liveblog – it made the situation easier to follow.) Getting bits and pieces of information and trying to digest them while on the telephone and working with customers, I found it difficult to process the facts. A lot of what Steve Jobs says gets lost in translation in the liveblog. I was in a room filled with tech savvy co-workers and just about everyone was underwhelmed. While the announcement was, in fact, a “tablet-shaped device,” the details were significantly less impressive than the grandiose expectations that analysts and random tech followers (like myself) had ascribed to it. Nobody I spoke to seemed genuinely excited and as I collected feedback (most of it unsolicited), it largely consisted of exclamations about the poor marketing behind the name and what the iPad couldn’t do. Overall, people seemed generally confused about what makes this product offering so special.
It’s important to point out that after years of speculation about what an “Apple Tablet” would look and behave like, the expectations were almost impossible to meet. (It was actually a bit anti-climactic to actually see and hear this announcement since it was so much fun to pontificate over the years about what such a device might be.)
The Keynote is the Key
The key to understanding this product lies not in reviewing the specifications and comparing it to other offerings in the market. For those who are considering the iPad, my best suggestion is to actually invest an hour and half of your time before you spend $499 – $830. Watch the keynote and observe how Apple is marketing it to consumers.
Unlike many other product unveilings, Apple devoted almost the entire hour and a half to explaining just one product. (The keynote is long – if you can’t watch the entire thing, check out just the first 15 – 30 minutes of it. (It’s available now on the homepage at Apple.com or via iTunes via podcast.) But for the benefit of those that will only read this, I’ll do my best to share Steve Jobs’ sentiment.)
The most critical piece of information during the keynote was explained in the first 15 minutes. Steve showed a slide with an iPhone on the left, a MacBook on the right and and empty space in the center. He talked about the thought that went into deciding whether there was room for a product between those two devices. The philosophy he outlined was, ‘If we’re going to announce a product in between these two offerings, it has to be better than the phone and better than the MacBook at some things.’ He then hypothesized about whether the netbook fits in this category. (He actually put the word “Netbook” in the empty space between the MacBook and the phone. He explained that the company’s conclusion on netbooks is that they aren’t better than laptops or phones at anything. He dismissed them as “slow, cheap laptops”. It was only after going through this explanation that he unveiled the iPad that almost everyone has seen by now.
“A Jack of Some Trades”
So, why is it critical to understand this detail? In my analysis of reactions so far, people who don’t follow tech as closely seem to think that this device is ‘just a big iPod Touch/iPhone’. And to a large extent, this is true. But simply dismissing it as such is like dismissing a passenger bus as ‘just a large car’. To a layman, that’s a true statement. But the fact of the matter is that each has a specialty that make it more useful in certain situations. You can’t exactly park a bus at the supermarket and you can’t bring 82 of your friends to a concert in a car. The beauty of the iPad lies in the actual use cases. As Jobs pointed out in the keynote, this device is meant to be better than the phone and the laptop in a few key areas. The ones that he and the other presenters focused on were:
I’ll cut to the chase and say that I’m absolutely going to pick up one of these devices at launch. I’m as excited about owning one as I have been about any of the other first generation early-adopter products I’ve purchased. (Many of these I picked up on the first day of their release – like the original PlayStation, Amazon Kindle, first generation iPod (launch day), PowerBook and Palm Pilot to name a few.) This device is the answer to something I had been wanting for some time and I’ll explain why this fits perfectly into my routine. Is it a perfect device? Absolutely not. Rarely does a first generation offering satisfy every craving. Even the netbook has evolved significantly since my purchase of the Asus Eee PC two years ago. My first iPod bought back in 2001 had 10 gigabytes of storage and cost me $499. Most people laughed at me when I told them how much I paid. But that’s the life of an early adopter. Anyone who knows Apple knows that when a product is released, it’s like a large unshaped stone. Over time it gets chiseled and smoothed out until it finds mass market appeal. Truthfully, this product may never see mass market success. But for people whose needs are aligned with mine, this is a pretty attractive gadget.
So what makes this device such a compelling tech offering for me since I already own several mobile devices (including a Kindle)? Let me explain them by going through the use cases that Steve and the presenters outlined above.
So, according to Jobs, this product is ‘better than the laptop and the phone” at browsing the web. Well, is he right? While I don’t think that consumer adoption initially will be high, it’s my contention that in a few areas, despite some glaring omissions like the lack of flash, multitasking and other features that I’ll get into later, he’s right.
Let’s take web browsing. I have an hour and a half commute to work via bus during the week. My iPhone has been a godsend when it comes to staying connected during that time, but often I wish I had the same experience, but only with a larger screen. The iPhone (or any small form-factor device for that matter) doesn’t provide the screen real estate as I need in order to have a satisfactory experience with the content. Although the mobile web browser on the iPhone (as well as on the Pre and within Android) is great, when I go to a site like CNN.com or NYTimes.com, I’m spending a lot of time dragging around the screen and double-tapping to resize the content. It’s been a fairly good experience – certainly better than not having a powerful mobile web browser. But the smaller screen is an issue for me (and I suspect for others as well).
Following this logic, for a long time I thought that the answer might be, ‘well, just bring your laptop’. And for a period of time, I did. I quickly discovered that my MacBook Pro (15”) was too heavy and too large to carry around every day (not to mention the worry of having to babysit a $1500 device during a NYC commute.) I bought a launch Asus Eee PC (largely considered the first netbook available for wide consumer distribution) and I was trying to work out a situation where I used it during my commute to stay productive. Besides not having a persistent Internet connection, the problem with the Asus (as well as with the two other Netbooks that I’ve since owned and sold) is a problem that Jobs pointed out. They aren’t particularly good at anything. My last netbook (an HP Mini) was the best of the bunch, but it was considerably slower than even my iPhone and drastically slower than my MacBook Pro. What makes a laptop the wrong solution (at least for many situations where the user is seated without a table) is the keyboard. I’m a writer and having a keyboard is certainly helpful and comes in handy – that is, when I’m using it. When I’m riding the bus to work, I’m not doing a lot of text entry anyway. As a result, the keyboard gets in the way. And there’s no comfortable way for me to enjoy a laptop without having a table. It tends to be too low when positioned on my lap and the keyboard only extends the space between myself and the screen. I use my MacBook Pro during meetings for an organization where I serve as secretary. When I don’t have a table, resting it on my lap (even when I cross my leg and rest my ankle on my thigh) it is an awkward experience.
I have yet to hold an iPad, but it seems as if removing the keyboard and allowing the user to have a similar browsing experience to the iPhone’s is the right answer (at least for me). It will be interesting to see if it gets tiring holding an iPad during my commute and if the phone isn’t a better solution simply because it’s lighter. Either way, it’s better than a laptop for browsing where you have no table and don’t need to do a lot of data entry.
And ‘Intimate’ Experience
If you watch the keynote, you’ll notice that Steve spends a lot of the time seated with the device resting in his lap. He remarked at the fact that the experience is a lot more intimate than a laptop. I think this is something that is lost on many people who are making early judgments. The best way that I can illustrate this is with a picture… look at this guy I saw on the bus (coincidentally on my commute the evening after the keynote). Notice how he is holding the laptop. It just looks uncomfortable. How can you manage email or surf the web or watch a movie effectively this way. I see people on the train all the time with laptops and even the most graceful folks make it look as if they are posing for the “wrong way” image in an ergonomics guide. The key takeaway here is that the laptop is a great form factor, but not in these mobile situations where there is no place to rest it.
Managing email is probably the same story as browsing the web, although to a lesser degree since having a physical keyboard is more critical to the overall e-mail experience. Ironically, it might be the QWERTY-keyboard smartphone – especially in the Blackberry/Treo-style — that probably makes for the best mobile email experience. Just the same, I think I will enjoy being able to visit Gmail and read messages on a full-sized screen. Apple demoed an email client that is similar to the OS 10 Mail application. Not sure whether I’ll use this or simply use Gmail. But as long as I’m not doing a lot of responding to messages, this works for me.
The keyboard is a big question mark here. I can’t make any conclusions until I try it out. What’s promising is that the iPad support bluetooth keyboards (of which – surprise – I own one.) If I’m going to carry around a keyboard because I anticipate the need to write, I might as well just bring my laptop. But if I’m going to do as much writing as I normally do when I’m reading through email, the onscreen keyboard might be sufficient.
Unlimited Data at $29.99 with No Contract
One of the keys to tying this whole experience together is having 3G in the device. Persistent connectivity is critical. Travelling on a bus rules out Wi-Fi as an option for me to stay connected. I simply don’t like the hassle and time sink involved with finding a Wi-Fi spot, signing in, worrying if I’m connected to some malicious network, etc. 3G is the way to go for me.
I don’t think I’d be nearly as excited about the iPad if it weren’t for the extremely good deal of $29.99 per month for “unlimited” data through AT&T. I can sense that people who live in areas where AT&T 3G data coverage is poor might not not be pumping their fists with joy at this announcement. But my AT&T 3G connection works great in NYC and I would venture to say that consume more data than most people with my heavy browsing and downloading of media over the 3G network while riding a bus for an hour through two boroughs.
Photos and Music
Photos and music are a “nice to have” extra feature, but I don’t see myself listening to a lot of music on this. The increased size of the iPad doesn’t give it any advantages here. The phone works just fine for that. Also, photo presentation will be larger. But photos are something that I share if someone asks me how my nephews are doing or how a particular social event I attended went. I don’t show many photos on my phone and I don’t foresee showing many on the iPad. When I need to share images, the phone works just fine.
While I’ve been a gamer for more years than I’d care to acknowledge, games on the iPhone aren’t exactly where I spent a lot of my time. There are games like Peggle, FreeCell, and a few other minor time wasters that I’ll use. But without having any directional pad and buttons to control my interaction with the game, it isn’t that compelling. That said, there are some games where touching the screen isn’t too bad. I’ll certainly give games a shot on this. Now, that’s me and an analysis of how I’d see gaming. For the industry, I can see this device changing gaming as we understand it. Sales data seems to indicate that companies are making a killing on smaller cost transactions ($.99 – $9.99) versus traditional games purchased at a brick-and-mortar shop like Best Buy ($39-65.) Many gamers don’t seem to share my issues with the lack of tactile feedback. With the fast Open-GL capable processor that’s in the iPad combined with the possibility of some third-party add on controllers (maybe connected via the dock connector??), this has the potential to be a killer mobile gaming system.
I don’t regret purchasing my Kindle. It’s provided a good reading experience for the times that I’ve used it. The battery lasts for a ridiculously long time (couple of weeks for me) and the quality of the text is very easy on the eyes. eInk – the technology found in the Nook, Kindle and other eBook readers – is known for these two benefits. But there are drawbacks that keep it from reaching the next level and making significant inroads with the publishing industry.
The contrast between the dark grey ink of the text against the light grey background isn’t the same as having a book with white or cream pages and black text. Moreover, the magazine industry (seemingly looking for a way to get into electronic distribution) can’t deliver a rich experience via eInk since it is not yet capable of being displayed in color.
The iPad demo of eBooks was beautiful and could be a dagger to the heart of devices like the Kindle, Nook and others based on eInk. The text was resizable and configurable in different fonts. The experience of turning the page (an annoyance on eInk devices that flash the screen and have a delayed response time) was quick on the iPad and looks much easier on the eyes. And the simple fact that the content will be distributed in color will make the iPad more attractive to readers of magazine content.
The standard Kindle (6” screen) is $259 and the Kindle dx with a screen that is exactly the same size as the iPad (9.7” diagonal) is $489. At only $10 cheaper than the entry level iPad, the Kindle dx and other eInk devices are in serious trouble. Even with all of the extra iPad functionality, the Kindle does have some advantages. I don’t think anyone will have a larger and more robust publishing library than Amazon. And the Kindle comes with free connectivity to a data service, so you can purchase books wherever you happen to be.
There are two major questions that will need to be answered before we can call the iPad a ‘Kindle killer’. Most importantly, will readers find the experience of reading on the iPad’s LED screen as easy on the eyes as they do the Kindle? And almost equally important is the question, “Are potential Kindle owners willing to leave all of the additional functionality – the movie viewing, email management, web browsing, color photos, music, iPhone/iPod Touch applications – on the table for the benefit of being able to buy books on the go anywhere they can get an Amazon Whispernet connection (Sprint EVDO – which is practically everywhere)?
Also, CES showed us that there are other display technologies that deliver an experience that is as energy efficient as eInk and that add color. And who knows – perhaps one of those devices may find favor with readers. But I’m thinking that the winner of the eBook/online publication distribution battle will be someone who has a strong relationship with publishers. This would tend to be a larger company. Amazon has the edge, but Apple had a lot of publisher names on their slide during the keynote.
Personally, I don’t read as often as I listen to audiobooks. I’m not the audience for this market. But I would like to see how readers find the experience of reading on an iPad.
The last area where I’m cautiously optimistic is video. I’m a film aficionado and as much as I tried, I can’t force myself to watch certain content (like films) on a phone. Even with high quality Bose headphones, the screen is just too small. This 9.7” LED screen may be the answer to my prayers. I wish the border around the screen wasn’t quite as thick and that the screen had a wider aspect ratio (something I’m sure I’ll experience buyer’s remorse about when Apple re-designs and re-releases the iPad in a year).
I’ve seen the LED screen that the newer MacBook Pros and the LED Cinema Displays offer and having a smaller version of that in my lap is worth the price of admission. I have a collection of films that I’ve ripped from DVDs that I own and I’d love to see how they look running on that 1024×768 LED screen. I also have a few High Definition quality film files that came with the Blu-ray copy of films that I’ve purchased. My guess is that the DRM will not allow me to play this on my iPad – which makes me sad. I have other High Definition films that I can’t get into iTunes because they are encoded via a format that iTunes doesn’t understand and that means I’m left out in the cold as far as my high definition movie collection. Apple doesn’t care about me in this respect. They want to sell me movies. They aren’t interested in me putting my acquired content on this. I’m sure there will be ways (albeit time consuming and awkward) for me to use Handbrake or some other tool to get these movies on the iPad. But what I really want is to have accessible storage to just copy the high definition movies to my iPad and just have them work.
Another missed opportunity regarding video might have been to include support for streaming services like Amazon, Hulu and Vudu. Perhaps these are options we’ll see in subsequent releases.
I’ve heard a few technology journalists talking about how much better an experience can be viewing films on a 50” high definition television. I think in technology we have a tendency to think only of our personal situations, but there are a ton of use cases for watching this device – even at home – versus watching a large screen television. Anyone with a spouse and children knows the battle for the remote control. And while the family man in me thinks that compromise and watching television together might be a more enriching experience, I’d love to watch a television series that nobody else in the house enjoyed on an LED screen in high definition. The 50” screen is only appears as large as it is relative to your distance from the screen. No, it’s not the same experience to watch a 10” screen, but I think it’s one that I will prefer. I have one 50” high definition television in my apartment. I can’t roll it around to every room in the house. I can even see a situation where I hold the screen and watch a movie in the room where my 50” HD TV is off because my Bose QuietComfort headphones provide better sound than the surround sound system that I own.
iPhone Applications – Only Larger
One huge advantage for existing iPhone owners like myself looking to pick up an iPad will be it’s ability to run able to run all iPhone applications natively. This is awesome, as I assumed there would need to be some conversion process to get the applications to run. I’m sure that some of these apps will look unattractive blown up on a screen that is about 3 times it’s size. But it’s a huge advantage nonetheless.
This announcement does not come without it’s share of head scratching moments. There were a number of areas that were painfully apparent to everyone where Apple needs to make a stronger case to consumers before they’ll open their wallets.
The Best Web Experience – Without Flash??
When Steve Jobs began his demo of the iPad, it was pretty smooth sailing until he went to the New York Times webpage and reached a spot where Flash would normally be present, but instead had a familiar placeholder that displays if you don’t have the plug-in installed. Apple has a bit of a war going on with Adobe (makers of Flash). Apple has been critical of the technology because of it’s inefficient use of system resources. Simply put, it drains battery life. This is why it is rarely found in mobile phones. Adobe and Apple are floating quotes out to the press about this situation, trying to garner sympathy from iPhone/iPod owners who want to know why certain sites don’t work. The truth of the matter is this: claiming that your device is the “best web browsing experience” is a difficult sell if you cannot display the many web pages that have flash content. It will be interesting to see how this situation develops. For right now, this is a huge problem.
A Limited Experience
One of the areas where the iPhone is weak and needs to evolve to remain among the more relevant smartphones is in the area of the user interface. For many new smartphones, various pieces of relevant information are displayed when you wake the phone, like the weather, a list of recent emails, calendar appointments and top news stories. The iPhone displays an arrangement of icons. Since the iPad is running an OS that is very similar to the iPad, this appears to be the case for it as well.
It seems like a huge waste to have a large, beautiful screen where you just have an arrangement of icons. Companies with less experience than Apple in user interfaces have created more elegant experiences. With a 9.7” screen, a dream might be to have a Twitter widget with maybe the last 10 posts from your followers, a Facebook widget displaying the same, an email widget with 5-10 recent emails updating regularly and several news and website rss feeds – all updating on that one screen at the same time. I dream about this on the iPhone and it needs to be in the iPad as well.
The criticisms about the iPhone being a very closed experience seem to extend to the iPad. Although web browsing is great, don’t think you’re going to be downloading any mp3 files or saving any content to your hard drive. Hell – you’d be lucky if you can even get access to the hard drive storage space to see what files you have on it. Criticisms I’ve heard in this area are right – the iPhone/iPad experience is a very closed one. No deleting of files from the device (probably.) No downloading of files from any webpages. Sure, you can play them if Safari recognizes them. But there’s no way to save them and access them later.
I have been on the soap box for a long time about Apple not allowing the phone to multitask. The iPhone 3GS, despite having powerful hardware, does not allow for multitasking without jailbreaking the phone. Apple has to find a way to make this experience a reality for it’s users. They are falling behind. These siloed tasks may extend the overall battery life, but it is decreasing our overall productivity. One of the great things about my Palm Pre was being able to open a web page, switching over to the email client, responding to a message and then going back to my fully loaded web page. If the Pre can handle it, why can’t a device as robust as the iPad?
I have no information to support this, but I would have to guess that these two glaring omissions – multitasking and a limited user interface – have to be two of the items that at the top of the list for iPhone OS 4.0 when it is discussed later this year. (And if they aren’t, they need to be.)
And Then, There Are “The Unknowns”….
Of course having only seen video and had accounts from friends and colleagues who were at the press event, there are a number of things that have to be experienced to be understood. Apple claims that the iPad can do 10 hours of video on a single charge. I find that very hard to believe, but I’m willing to test this out (and I’m sure that I will find out whether this is true.)
I don’t plan on listening to the sound without headphones, but I’d love to know how powerful that external speaker is. Often I’m sharing things I found on the web with friends. How nice would it be to just be to play a video with a group standing around and have crystal clear audio?
Aside from the questions around whether or not consumers will adopt this device, there is some potential here for business adoption. Imagine walking into a hospital and filling out an iPad that will bring up a video explaining a question you found unclear or reminding you about a field that you left empty. Or what about a car dealership that showed you specifications and availability of models on an iPad? What about pharmaceutical sales representatives, that need to get signatures from doctors to drop samples. President Obama talked about electronic medical forms with less errors and more transferable data. That seems like it can be achieved with one app and a commitment to a standard by the medical industry.
Whether it’s the iPad or the HP Slate, the opportunity exists for something like this to be big if it can customize the experience to take advantage of the needs of each business vertical.
Mass Market Adoption?
I’ve acknowledged that I fully intend to pick up an iPad because it’s the right solution for my needs. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is for everyone. Peter Rojas (founder of Gizmodo, Engadget and now gdgt.com) had some interesting things to say recently about the concept of ‘an Apple tablet’ before it’s release. He pondered about whether the average iPod or iPhone owning consumer, who presumably owns at least one laptop or desktop in addition to their phone has room in their life for yet another gadget that replicates the functionality of the other two. It’s something that hardcore geeks don’t think twice about since we know we’ll be carrying some device around at all times, but it’s an excellent question and one whose answer remains to be seen. Is the increased screen size enough to justify the extra room in your travel bag? I presume the guy in the image above will find the room. But probably not most consumers. At least not yet.
In my opinion, this will be a situation similar to the iPod. A slow burn. At first it was just me and other OS 10 users who were able to use the iPod. Then came the release of iTunes. Following that was the addition of Windows compatibility. Then the release of a device with a color screen. Additional memory came with each release. Apple added the iTunes Music Store and subsequently added television shows, movies, audiobooks and educational content. Then there are all of the small innovations that made the device more attractive – sound quality improvement, solid state drives, an easier to navigate user interface. Even a lower-end model iPod that is offered today like the iPod classic or the iPod Nano at $149 – $249 is miles ahead of what I bought back in 2001.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the iPad will rise to the same level of success as the iPod did. The iPod was a very finely tuned device for a very specific purpose – a music device for music lovers. The iPad is being dragged in about eight or nine different directions. If the Apple Marketing team is as smart as I presume them to be, they will spend this time subsequent to the iPad’s announcement and even beyond into the years after it’s release not only iterating on the design. They need to make each of those bullet points at the top of this post more and more attractive. Browsing doesn’t appear to be “the best experience anywhere” on the iPad now. But innovation should push it that way. The same goes for movies. I presume over time there will be a model with a 16×9 aspect ratio screen for better movie viewing. Application development should be focused more towards taking advantage of the design of the device. Games will be released that will make gamers sit up and take notice and possibly even consider trading in their Nintendo DS or PSPs or a different kind of experience. Or maybe none of this will happen. The point is that the potential that existed for the iPod in 2001 exists for this device as well.
It will be rather interesting to look back on this moment in five years. Maybe we’ll look around and everyone will be holding Android phones that will dock inside a 10” screen and provide much of the experience that Apple is trying to achieve. Or perhaps the idea will be abandoned altogether and we’ll still have newspaper stands with hundreds of people per hour dropping fifty cents and taking a 100 page document that was outdated before the coin touched the newsstand? It is my contention that a device in this form factor – whether it finds success as an Apple released product or from some other company – is needed. We talk about being environmentally conscious. Here’s one way to reach that end. When I was in grade school we often talked about the ‘computer that would have 100 textbooks in it’ so we didn’t have to lug our social studies, math, grammar, biology and language books with us to school. (My back still hurts from those days). Well, perhaps that device is here. I think the number of slate/tablet-like devices we saw at CES along with the release of the Kindle dx are confirmation that this is the direction in which we’re headed.
So, is the iPad the device that will save the publishing industry (as well as kids’ spines)? Probably not in it’s current iteration. Is it going to sell like crazy when it’s released in a few months? Hard to tell, but I presume that sales will be rather modest. Will consumers be receptive to carrying yet another electronics device? This might be the most difficult answer to predict. What I can say for certain is that the iPad looks like an attractive, exciting device that I’ll have a ton of use for when it arrives. It might not be perfect now, but I’m willing to take the long journey of the early adopter, using unpolished products and complaining about shortcomings until after years of revisions, it reaches a price point and a feature set that is just right for ‘John Q’. That may be quite a ways off now (if ever) but I will certainly enjoy the journey as we move towards that goal.