The January 27th announcement of the Apple iPad has set off a firestorm of opinions, reviews and comments fueling a discussion over whether the device is a revolutionary product or merely an oversized iPod Touch. While many technology bloggers and pundits have lamented the perceived lack of innovation and missing features1, Apple CEO Steve Jobs claims that the, “iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price” and that “it creates and defines an entirely new category of devices that will connect users with their apps and content in a much more intimate, intuitive and fun way than ever before”2. Will it live up to its promise?
Revolutionary products often stretch existing technologies far beyond the status-quo, radically changing how consumers do tasks, transforming business models and industries while opening up new possibilities that touch everyone’s lives. Predicting whether or not a product will be revolutionary is no easy task, but there are several ways to glean evidence from current data to shed light on the iPad’s future. First, we can compare it to existing products that overlap in purpose and design like e-readers, tablet computers and netbooks. Second, we can compare the iPad to products on the boundaries of its niche like smartphones and laptops to see if it clearly changes how consumers do tasks they care about. Third, we can analyze initial customer feedback by reading reviews and comments on blogs and in the press. Fourth, we can speculate by studying the history of revolutionary products and determining if the iPad exhibits the necessary characteristics. In this essay, I take the first and second approaches by comparing the iPad with related products to show why this device will probably revolutionize the way people consume content like photos, videos, books and the web.
Tablet PCs have failed to launch a computing revolution because of at least three major setbacks: a weak battery life that keeps them deskbound and prevents them from being useful throughout the day, a user interface designed primarily for desktops instead of one specially-made for tablet computing, and a high price. In contrast, the iPad excels in all three areas and was designed from the ground-up to be “so much more intimate than a laptop [and] so much more capable than a smartphone”3. Let’s examine each area to understand its importance in context.
Current laptops achieve around 6 hours of battery life at best, which is enough to get some work done on the run, but not enough for a full day’s use. To solve this problem, people have tried packing more functionality into smartphones or focusing on doing single tasks like reading. For example, the Amazon Kindle supports a 1 week battery life between charges4 by using a low-power display designed solely for reading text. In contrast, the iPad achieves only 10 hours of battery life, trading away efficiency in order to gain full multimedia capabilities—people can watch movies and run graphics-intensive apps on the iPad. This tradeoff is acceptable since 10 hours is just enough to support a day’s worth of usage between charges, and it seems like a small price to pay to gain a responsive full color, multitouch display. By combining two design innovations—Apple’s custom A4 “system on a chip”5 and a custom lithium polymer battery6, which can be folded into the iPad’s sleek form factor—Apple has succeeded in overcoming laptops’ weak battery life while providing far more value than an e-reader. The result is a multimedia device that fits people’s lives: the iPad needs to be recharged while people sleep and can be used throughout the day while they are awake.
Previous attempts at tablet computing simply replaced the mouse with a pen, adding pen input capabilities on top of a standard desktop operating system7. Pen-based computing had the promise of a more intuitive interaction than a mouse, but still falls short of a child’s intuition to touch interesting things and discover what happens. It was also hampered by software with small buttons, small text and awkward interfaces—everything was designed for the mouse. Instead of adapting a desktop operating system to a tablet, Apple adapted its iPhone OS 3 to the iPad along with support for the over 140,000 applications in the App Store. It also released touch-specific versions of its iWork productivity suite to show how applications can be re-imagined for the new category of devices it is trying to create. For example, the e-mail application supports intuitive modality through changes in orientation. When the user holds the iPad in landscape mode, an inbox is displayed with previews of messages shown to the right. To focus on a particular message, the user simply turns the iPad into portrait mode and the software switches to a full screen view of the message. The physical design of the product is also intentionally touch-centric, sporting a wide bezel so that holding the device does not get interpreted as a touch. Unlike tablets which tried to run heavy desktop applications on a small machine, the iPad runs lightweight iPhone applications resulting in a delightful speed and responsive interface. The most novel iPad experience is made possible by a combination of multitouch and the IPS display technology which supports a wide viewing angle8. The wide viewing angle and large screen enable several people to enjoy content together, so instead of flipping through Facebook photos alone, a family can now sit on the couch and flip through photos together. This collaborative computing experience has the potential to go beyond media and revolutionize applications in gaming, productivity and education to name a few.
Instead of following competing manufacturers by producing cheap netbooks, Apple decided to make a new kind of device that focuses on content consumption and falls between smartphones and laptops. Although a first glance seems to favor a $300 netbook with a desktop OS over a $499 iPad with a smartphone OS, the real question centers on the value of the multitouch experience. People who prefer functionality and low cost may buy a netbook, but if the tablet experience is worth the cost of a low-end $800 tablet PC, the iPad has a revolutionary price. Furthermore, Apple has negotiated a contract-free 3G data plan with AT&T, which could change the game for other wireless carriers by positioning the whole industry as primarily selling “access to the pipes”.
Despite all these advances in battery life, usability and price, many people have repeatedly decried the iPad’s shortcomings: the lack of a webcam, no support for flash or multitasking, lack of precise stylus-based input, no built in video output, etc. Do these weaknesses mitigate the revolutionary impact of a large multitouch tablet? Probably not. The success of the iPhone and the widespread adoption of touch-based technology by competitors demonstrates that customers love the intuitive multitouch interface. By liberating the technology from the confines of a smartphone screen, Apple sets up the potential for a usability revolution everywhere computers are used. Although it focused on creating a compelling content consumption experience in the iPad, Apple also released a new toolkit, which enables developers to explore the frontiers and implications of multitouch for every sector spanning education to business to gaming.
As these new areas are explored, new needs will arise which Apple can prioritize and act on to improve future iterations of the iPad. For example, a built-in pico-projector could enable people to consume content not only with a neighbor, but with a room of friends. The iPad could also serve communication needs by including a webcam for videoconferencing. If customers want to do content production and data entry, the iPad could include speech recognition similar to Google’s NexusOne to augment its multitouch interface with another intuitive input method. As tablets evolve from solely media consumption devices to general purpose touch-based computers, Apple may need to support multitasking for select applications like instant messenging. Many people also want to consume video through websites like Hulu instead of being stuck with the iTunes store. Apple may provide an ad-supported media streaming service of its own or partner with Hulu to develop a custom application like YouTube. This is but a taste of what is to come.
The largest barrier to widespread adoption is convincing users that a third category of devices exists, which meets their needs in a sufficiently superior way to warrant purchasing an iPad when they may already own a laptop and smartphone9. At the same time, the iPad’s simplicity may attract new customers like my grandma who were previously reluctant to use computers because of their complexity. Overall, the iPad appears to have the marks of a revolutionary product and may usher in a second “PC” revolution. Every desktop application needs to be re-examined to see if and how it would be designed in a collaborative multitouch scenario. In the same way the PC changed the world, we can expect the iPad to touch nearly everyone’s lives changing the way they do things in every line of work because of the novel, intuitive, sharable experience it offers.
A Brief Note on Industry/Market Implications:
The iPad extends its iTunes and App Store business models to books, providing one stop shopping for almost all of a consumer’s media needs. Given sufficient selection, people no longer have to go to physical stores or purchase content through computers; all the content they want is at their fingertips. This revolutionizes the media industry by changing the playing field so that content producers now compete in Apple’s stores either through their actual store or by creating apps of their own. By creating and controlling a compelling new device, Apple becomes the gateway to media changing the industry so that content sellers must compete on Apple’s terms. Even so, there are opportunities to gain a strong competitive position. In contrast to retailers like Amazon, Apple focuses on premium content on premium devices implying that businesses that serve the “Long Tail” of content niches can thrive. By offering a larger selection of content than Apple, making it easier to search for and discover the content consumers care about, and supporting a larger ecosystem that makes content available in many form factors beyond the tablet, businesses may be able to succeed despite Apple’s firm control. Taking this to an extreme, a marketplace for selling user generated content (video, books, music, etc.) similar to the way the App Store enabled independent developers to sell software may also be an attractive option.
Product-wise, the implications of the iPad for the tablet, e-reader and netbook markets remain to be seen. Within Apple, the iPad could cannibalize sales of iPod Touches and low end MacBooks. Outside of Apple, it clearly supplant’s Amazon’s Kindle DX large format e-reader because of its far superior capabilities at a similar price point10. Although computer manufacturers like Dell, HP and others have historically sought to undercut Apple’s premium products by offering lower prices, the iPad’s already excellent price appears to nullify this strategy. Therefore, two approaches currently seem viable: offer simpler functionality at a lower price or more functionality at a comparable price. For example, Dell or HP could capture part of the market by offering a tablet at a similar price with the same form factor, but with additional capabilities like Flash support and multitasking. Alternatively, companies like Google could provide a limited cloud-based OS for tablet-like devices at a lower price point. It may not provide the same level of consumer experience, but would meet the needs of people who have been complaining about price or other glaring deficiencies in the iPad.
1 See Engadget’s editorial and a summary of top bloggers