January 28, 2010

Top Five Reasons Why Apple's iPad is Revolutionary

People lamenting iPad's lack of "features" are discounting its user experience as well as the big picture change it represents.

[UPDATE 28-APR 2010: After finally spending hours with the device, reviewers at Engadget reluctantly admitted earlier this month that "it's a little bit revolutionary" indeed. Wall Street Journal's veteran tech reviewer Walt Mossberg went further in his March 31st review: "I believe this beautiful new touch-screen device from Apple has the potential to change portable computing profoundly, and to challenge the primacy of the laptop."

Meanwhile, Apple is so inundated with iPad orders within the U.S. that it has decided to postpone its international launch. Clearly, iPad is turning out to be as much of a success as this blog had predicted at its January unveiling when the tech community was almost unanimously focussed on its lack of "features" disregarding the user experience and the implications for personal computing.

Apple's introduction of iPad has been received with mixed response. While many reviewers are excited about the device, most have expressed serious disappointment with the perceived lack of "basic features". Let's take reviews by Engadet that are representative of what tech bloggers are generally saying about this device.

Out of three of their editors who got to check the device hands on, Josh called it underwhelming and unimaginative, Ross said he couldn't justify buying this device while Chris Grant from Joystiq said iPad doesn't represent sea change in quality like the iPhone. Others were less forgiving. Darren calls it one of Apple's biggest misses. All bemoaned the lack of features they were expecting.

Many people perhaps expected a full-fledged computing device so I can understand some of the disappointment. But Apple never said what they were going to release and all the hype in the media and blogosphere in the weeks and months leading up to the event was creation of these very people who are now criticising the device for not living up to their expectations. When Jobs got on stage, he made it clear from that start that iPad lies somewhere between the laptop and smartphone.

With that said, in my view, characterising iPad as simply "an over-sized iPod touch" is what is really unimaginative. Failing to see beyond their "power" needs most reviewers have shown lack of thinking. They also demonstrate that they have learned nothing from the success of iPhone and iPod.

I think iPad goes far beyond in terms of what it offers today to users, what it represents for the future of portable computing, what it means for Apple as a company and what it can do for the publishing industry. To call the device revolutionary is not an exaggeration by any measure. Here's why:

#1 The User Experience

Success of a device of this kind is about the overall user experience and not about a few features here and there. It's not what it "can't do" but how it does the things it can.

Let's rewind by three years. Apple releases a smartphone that doesn't have any new "feature" and yet it explodes in sales. What happened? Can you name any single new feature that iPhone introduced when it debuted that no other phone had? Did you say, web browsing? Well, people had been using the web on their cell phones for ages. Email? That's what blackberry did. Touchscreen? Again, lots of phones had touchscreens even then. Camera? Music player? All of these were already standard features.

If you said multi-touch, that would be spot on but why have we forgotten about multi-touch now? How many mainstream computing device can you name -- be it a laptop, PC, Netbook or ebook -- that allows you to browse the web, access files on your computer, scroll lists and read a book using a specialised interface designed for multi-touch? Sure there are touchscreen tablets but neither are they mainstream nor do they carry multi-touch capability anything resembling the iPad.

Let's get back to iPhone, what was unique about it was its user experience. The way the interface flew when it touched your fingers. While most people drooled over the demo when Jobs first revealed the iPhone in his January 2007 keynote but by the time they got home they began to wonder what kind of cool aid were they drinking. Several tech bloggers wrote in the following days that there was nothing revolutionary about this Phone. All the iPhones features could be found on other Smartphones as well. After all, they pointed out, the iPhone even lacked many things they took for granted -- it couldn't forward a text message, couldn't record video, couldn't send an MMS, didn't have expandable memory and didn't come with a swappable battery.

Forty-two million iPhone sales later, it's clear that none of that mattered.

Nine years ago, iPod debut saw a similar response from parts of the tech community. "No wireless. Less space than [competition]. Lame," said the post on Slashdot. And again, 250 million iPods later, nobody's calling the device lame. Obviously, tech bloggers don't get that the user experience is king in software just as content is in media.

Why do we discount the user experience? For one, because it's an intangible. Image transitions, ease of scrolling, surfing the web, pinching and expanding photographs, accessing information with ease, accuracy of search results and the user interface in general aren't counted as "features" and "functionality" of a device in spec sheets unlike tangibles such as webcam, USB ports. And yet it's these intangibles that make the user experience and define how the tangible "features" of the device behave.

A mp3 player with a brand new interface to scroll down long lists or a smartphone with no new "feature" might look boring when you compare spec sheets - get them in your hand and it's an entirely different experience. Steve Jobs emphasised twice in his Keynote on Wednesday that it's one thing to hear about iPad and quite another to take it in your hands.

The reason many people aren't enamored by the device today is that they are used to multi-touch on their iPhone and its novelty value has long worn off. On phones, that is. Wait till they actually get to do the same things on a computing device. Although the iPad isn't a full fledged computer, if the videos are any indication, it does some of the key tasks exceedingly well.

Apart from the user experience of reading/ viewing/ browsing/ accessing content, the entertainment experience especially gaming is going to to be completely unmatched by devices of this kind. SGN Holdings is planning to bring "Xbox 360-quality 3D multiplayer game" to iPad. They are also said to be planning games that will let users "handle their iPhones like a Wii-like game controller for an iPad."

That is the kind of experience you can look forward on an iPad and this is why the iPad is revolutionary.

#2 The End of Laptop Form Factor

If the iPad does succeed in capturing a large market, and I have no doubt that it will, it'd be hard for Apple to limit the tablet form factor of the iPad to the current device. I see no reason why there can't be full fledged portable computing devices of 15" to 17" size in the tablet form factor ready to be used either as a touchscreen iPad or as desktop with standup monitor and split keyboard configuration or even as traditional laptop with removable wireless keyboard plus touchpad inside a tablet jacket.

While Apple hasn't made any explicit statements to this effect but its lead designer Jonathan Ive did offer hint of such future development when he said referring to the iPad: "this defines our vision, our sense of what's next."

After seeing how iPad works, it's really difficult to imagine that this will not happen. Weight of the device might be an issue for large screens but most people will still use it on some kind of a platform such as tabletop, kitchen counter or simply on their knees rather than holding it with one hand. The possibility of ending portable computing's most famous form factor of the last two decades, the laptop, is what makes the iPad revolutionary.

#3 Breaking The $500 Price Barrier (also called The Netbook Effect)

Figures released last month show that in 2009 while Laptops lost revenue by 7%, Netbooks grew 72% in sales and over 103% in units sold. The data clearly indicates that people are not just buying them as secondary machines but their primary computers -- a fact that "power users" (especially those who dominate tech blogs and media outlets and who were the first to crticise iPad as lacking "important features") might find hard to digest.

The point is, success of Netbooks amply demonstrates that if you give them a really low price consumers will happily ignore lack of few features.

Introduced in late 2007, a Netbook is a small form factor, low performance portable computer sans an optical disk which became a phenomenal and unexpected overnight success. Steve Jobs himself deningrated the Netbook in his Keynote when he said they are not better at anything. He's generally right if he's referring to the user experience. With low resolution screens, slower processors and cramped keyboards, netbooks leave a lot to be desired.

But even Jobs knows that netbooks are still good at one or two things. Portability and price. At around 10 inches in size and $300 in price, on average, Netbooks are 70% the size and 50% the price of traditional 15" Windows laptops. This -- the price in large part, and portability closely following -- explains their unprecedented rise to prominence.

It's easy to see that Apple has recognised these factors behind the phenomenal success of Netbooks because the iPad seems to be designed to compete in the same market with the same key characteristics. Starting at $499, the iPad is priced at a price-point which is precisely half-way through Apple's entry level laptop, the Macbook priced at $999. Not coincidentally, the iPad is also 10 inches in size.

By crossing the $500 price barrier and ensuring portability, Apple's iPad appears destined to experience the same explosion in sales that Netbooks are experiencing. This is why the iPad is revolutionary.

#4 The App Store

Here's another question for the skeptics: name another computer manufacturer that makes money from sale of third-party software written for their device, completely controls this software ecosystem and successfully thrwarts all competition. With over 140,000 apps, three billion downloads and Apple's infamous approval process with the golden clause that rejects any application with "duplicate functionality", the app store for iPhone is a money minting machine for Apple Inc.

About one third of all revenue generated from the app store goes into Apple's pockets. No other hardware maker has anything that comes close. And once again, we've gotten so used to it that we forget the genius of an invention it is for Apple.

Free from the limitations of a mobile device, the iPad will guarantee one thing for Apple, many many more new apps and zillions of downloads. If Apple discontinues the Macbook and Macbook Pro line and converts them into iPad's tablet form factor over the coming years, as I predict above, there will be serious temptation to continue with the app store's closed ecosystem model simply because it's just so profitable.

With the first closed ecosystem of applications for a major computing device in the iPad, Apple has just redefined the rules of engagement with its competitors like Dell and Microsoft. Neither of them are poised to respond likewise because unlike Apple, neither of them makes both software and hardware. This is what makes Apple's iPad revolutionary.

#5 Old Media Saviour

Finally, with the iPad, Apple is set to forever change how newspapers, periodicals and textbooks are read. While Jobs' keynote did not venture much beyond books, it's been widely reported that he's working closely with several bigtime publishers.

Old media has long been grappaling with new media and how best to employ it to their advantage. Yet, they have failed to make it work for them. Meanwhile, as news aggregators and free online news sites gain readership, real world newspapers' and magazines' subscriptions are falling, advertising rates decreasing and publishers are closing shops.

For the first time, they are provided with an opportunity. All of a sudden, print publishers get to be on a platform that can push them inside homes of people who have their credit card ready and who are accustomed to paying for consumption of media content and software. The number of payment transactions of songs, movies, TV shows and applications through the iTunes store and app store run in billions. Apple could possibly do to publishing what it did to the music industry. So a seriously troubled, if not dying entity now gets a good chance of revival. That's revolutionary.

Update: Digg this

About the date mark: While I started drafting this post on 28th Jan, it was first published on 1.30am [IST] 1st Feb 2010.

Past Apple posts on this blog

Design of an Apple Badge
iPhone: Apple's Most Profitable Product Ever?
Steve Jobs' iPhone: What's the Big Deal?
Steve Jobs, an artist of the highest order
Lessons from Steve Jobs' life
On Jef Raskin
Unveiling of iPod Nano
The Great Apple Turnaround
User Experience as competitive advantage

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