Friday, January 29, 2010

The iPad: A Brave New World

Has any piece of technology ever been more anticipated than the iPad? Has anything created as many extreme reactions? Has anything generated as much immediate ridicule?

Anyways, there are a lot of opinions out there, including some very good ones. I really like Alex Payne's take on the iPad. His post led me to Daniel Tenner's analysis, which is probably the closest thing I have seen to my own opinion. While we are at it, I think Timothy Blee's case against the iPad is definitely worth a read. Adobe's Mike Chambers has a very predictable reaction, but is still worth a read as well. But who cares about those guys, you're reading this because you want my brilliant insights, right?

I think the iPad is Apple's boldest move since the 80's. In the 80's, they liberally borrowed a lot of existing ideas and added some of their own twists to reinvent personal computing. It was no longer the command line driven process. There no need for Unix or DOS. The iPad is equally ambitious. 

Over the last two years, Apple has had a chance to experiment with a new kind of computing. The iPhone is accurately described as very capable personal computer that fits in your pocket. With it, Apple changed the way a user interacted with their computer. There was no more mouse, yet the keyboard was rarely needed. There was very little physical media to interact with, i.e. no floppy disks, CDs, or DVDs, only a very occasional physical linking to a desktop/laptop. Apple gave software developers a much more limited environment than they had ever had to deal with. Compared to desktop computer software, iPhone software is amazingly limited in how it can interact with the system (the iPhone). The distribution model was also controlled in a way rarely seen before. Apple had to approve your applications before they could be sold to users.

Yet even in this most restricted of environments, software developers have flourished. Why? As Joe Hewitt wisely points out, many of these restrictions really are for the best. I can install any app from the App Store, and I don't have to worry about it harming my iPhone. This is in stark contrast to desktop software, particularly the ubiquitous world of Windows. 

But wait, it's worse. At least if you're a software developer. The Draconian distribution machine that is the App Store and its approval process is a key part of this peace of mind given to iPhone users. It also makes their lives much easier. Just go to the App Store, and you can find whatever kind of software that you are looking for. Or just browse the games, or maybe lifestyle or social media apps, and you can find something interesting. Reviews are built right into the system. It could get better, and Apple is working on this with their Genius system, but it beats the heck out of anything else out there. 

The iPad takes this new model of personal computing and packages it into a personal computer. The iPad does not invent a new category. Just like the iPhone, it is going after an existing huge category, only this time it is the desktop/laptop category. Yes, this happens to be a category that Apple already plays in and is having a lot of success in. That is part of why this is so bold. The iPad is not going after the statistically insignificant category known as netbooks. Apple does not aim so low. Instead it is going after every person who owns a laptop.

Perhaps you think I am overstating, that Apple is not as bold as I claim. There were four new apps that Apple unveiled along with the iPad. One of those is iBooks, and I won't bother too much with that. The other three were Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. This is Apple's office suite. These are competitors of Microsoft's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Now you can read many Office documents on an iPhone, but it is largely a read-only experience. These are not read programs. These are content creation programs. If you think about the history of Apple, could there be anything more symbolic than them shipping a word processing application with their new computing platform? 

I bought my wife a laptop a couple of years ago. It was essential for her to have Office on it. Word processors and spreadsheets are the meat and potatoes of desktop software. Of course she uses photo management and media management software too. All of these things are available on the iPad. The truth is she could easily replace her laptop with an iPad. It would be easier for her to carry around, have better battery life, and the 3G would work even if she was visiting her mother (who does not have wi-fi.)

Think about all of the people whose job involves a computer. For most people, could they not do their job on an iPad? Wouldn't it even be easier in many cases? Of course it would be more convenient, again because of the size, battery life, and always being connected.

Now there will definitely be some people who cannot use an iPad for their job. I am one of those people. Maybe you could write code on it ok, but compile/debug? Don't think so. Designers who do intense things with Illustrator, Photoshop, etc. will need more than an iPad, too. Ditto for scientists, engineers, etc. There are more groups as well, but it's still probably a minority. For all of those people who have to do a lot of typing? Well there's a dock for that. You get the idea.

Apple is offering a new model for personal computing. They are attempting to disrupt an entire industry, once again. The iPad is not a big iPod Touch or a big iPhone. It is not Apple's attempt to go after Amazon's Kindle. It is an attempt to dominate in a way that even Microsoft never got close to. Apple is going to every person who owns a computer and saying "look there's another, better, easier way." I think it's an all-or-nothing bet. The iPad is either a world changer, or a total failure. Which one will it be? 

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