January 28, 2010

iPad Wins On Casual Computing, Content Consumption

Despite my reputation as an Apple fanboy, through the months of rumors and hype around Apple's tablet, I remained relatively quiet. While it may have reduced my page views potential, I've made a cognitive choice not to be the fifteenth person jumping into a dogpile just to say I did it. If you wanted rumors and guesses, they were out there. If you wanted speculation and mockups, you knew where to find it. And when the big day came yesterday, instead of calling in sick and watching Steve Jobs wow the faithful in San Francisco, I was working, taking part in a full day consulting engagement with a new client working on some very interesting things.

But with 24 hours plus after the iPad has moved from rumor to reality, I am as unimpressed with the swarm of armchair quarterbacking that is going on from many corners of the Web pointing out its shortfalls when contrasted to their own dream machines, or trying to find out why feature X made it but feature Y did not as I was with their thin rumors. I've seen people claiming that the debut of the iPad is a big bucket of iFail, that it's a dud, that it's "not for you", or in the reverse, that it means the death of TV, the death of banner ads online, the death of Flash, the death of... yeah, you get it.

Without shooting myself in the foot, this is part of why the blogosphere can at times get a bad name. This is why Apple can afford to keep its eyes closed to the rumors and speculation and suggestions by committee, for if the iPad had been developed by the many who have designed its tombstone over the last 24 hours, it would be too expensive, late to market, too heavy, or simply defy the laws of physics.

To question Apple's decisions at this point, after the success of the iPhone, and the iTunes Store and the iPod before them, on the heels of the iMac, and Mac OS X and the top-quality MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lines, is pretty silly. Put toe to toe with any other hardware and software company on the planet, I think I am going to pick the Apple team every time, because they simply know how to focus and execute.

Today, I finally took the time to watch Steve Jobs introduce the iPad. While some may have derided the iPad as simply a larger iPod Touch, I believe the most important part of what Jobs focused on was the reason for such a device, sitting between an iPod and a laptop. The need for such a product would be obviated if it could not do certain tasks better than an iPod or better than a laptop. Steve said it needed to browse the Web better, to play videos and iTunes better, and to look at photos better. It is also as important to focus on what he did not say it was intended to do. It was not built to "create" content better. Even though it does have e-mail, and iWork is to be soon available also, this device is built to be an amazing content consumption device.

The iPad is not a Photoshop machine. It is not designed to create PowerPoint slides. But it is designed for how many of us are using our computers today - to consume content. We read Web sites and blogs. We watch videos. We look at photos. We update our social networks. What the iPad is is the stepping stone from the laptop to the virtual "cloud machine", with no hard disk at all, which we may all see some day, the true network computer which has been promised for a decade-plus.

The iPad is designed for casual computing. The presentation yesterday did not focus on speeds and feeds. There was not megahertz bake-off with the A4 chip against Intel processors. Instead, we saw Scott Forstall snowboarding from the couch, and checking his Facebook wall. Steve Jobs looked at photos from vacation trips, sent a single-sentence e-mail and chilled to Bob Dylan.

The price of the iPad, starting at only $499 for an entry level unit, is about the same as the first iPods were in 2001 ($399), and they only did one thing - music. But instead of being limited to just one task, the iPad does about 90% of what you have come to expect from a traditional $1,000 to $2,000 laptop. For all the derision of the iPad in the world of business, it could be a fantastic tool for business meetings around round tables, and at home, it could be a fantastic Web tablet for people of all generations. Forget about finding a niche for me to use it, in addition to my iPhone and MacBook Air. Why shouldn't an iPad, version one or version two, become the first computing device for my kids? At its low price, large enough screen for their small hands, and instant access to iTunes apps, that could end up what happens in the next few years.

While the iPad does not run a derivative of Mac OS X, what instant integration with the iTunes App Store has done is turned the old adage of Macs not having enough software titles completely on its head. While more and more of our activity today comes through Web services, the iPad starts with tens of thousands of potential apps, on day one. Contrast this with what will no doubt be a future alternative to the iPad, with Google's Chrome OS, which may be a winner in browsing the Web and having a cheap price point, but won't likely come close to offering such a massive library of apps.

At the beginning of the year, I said that 2010 computing was going to be four things: Lighter, Faster, Mobile and Connected. The iPad is lighter, mobile and connected, three of the four, and it looks faster than the iPhone in terms of loading and processing apps. Reading the tea leaves that showed the MacBook Air line was not going to be updated this week, accurately, I did pick up my MacBook Air refurbished a few weeks ago, and it is already acting as my own cloud machine. Despite getting the 128 gigabyte hard drive, I still have more than 100 gigabytes available, as I continue to work toward a cloud experience. The iPad is another step in that direction, as it doesn't look open to third party software installs, and like the Air, does not have a removable media drive.

The iPad simply makes sense. I don't need to hold one to know how it will work, because I have become so familiar with the iPhone experience. I don't have to carry it from room to room while using the Web as I know I would, or read books or other content on it, instead of the Kindle, as I know it's better from day one, with more functionality, a better screen and real color. I do not care about all the whining that is going on about it missing a camera, or whether it supports Flash, or whether it needs a USB port or two to fit in. This is the first generation, and like the iPod and iPhone before it, the first generation is going to get updated and antiquated in about a year's time, as we continue to see the product evolve. The iPad, despite not being perfect, is the best product on the market at this pricepoint, period. It can make casual computing comfortable, and continue to erode the complexity so long associated with PCs from any source.

Have I purchased one yet? No. Having just purchased the Air, I am plenty happy with it. But I know an iPad, either this version or the next, will make it into my home. And if the twins have their druthers, we'll probably end up with two. So it's time to stop complaining about dream machines and misplaced expectations, and time to start trusting Steve. No other company, Google and Microsoft included, could have pulled off what Apple did yesterday. They are going to sell a ton of these machines, and you'll see them in places you never expected. Casual computing and content consumption are going to drive it.