A Follow Up iPad Non-Rant

[Someone else privately e-mailed me with personal thoughts about the iPad (a follow up to yesterday’s iPad rant).  I thought them eminently balanced and thoughtful (certainly more so than the comments I have made), so I asked permission to post them here.  The individual kindly granted me permission, as long as I keep his/her identity anonymous.  Those thoughts follow, virtually verbatim.  My thanks to the e-mailer! — WGS]

Since the iPad has taken center stage on your blog at the moment, I thought I would go ahead and throw you a few comments privately, for whatever they might be worth.  As far as I can tell, strong reaction to the iPad seems to be divided into two camps, depending on one fundamental difference in perspective.

  1. Is the iPad basically a “Kindle done right”?  If so, for buyers who “need” (want) an ebook reader, the “(Big) Pocket Exception” may apply, to the extent that they can add enough other needed (wanted) functionality on top of the ebook reader to make the iPad a far more compelling device.  If you have ever tried to read a book and/or visit a Web site using a Kindle — even a Kindle DX, very comparable in size to the iPad — you will know what I mean.
  2. Is the iPad basically an “iPod touch done big”?  If so, there doesn’t yet seem to be a compelling feature that differentiates it from other devices so as to make its niche obvious.  Wealthy gamers with bad eyesight?  People with fat fingers?

We already know that the iPad is poised to gain a big chunk of the ebook niche — including college students who may be able to save hundreds of dollars each year by moving to electronic textbooks, while also being able to surf the Web and send e-mail and play audio and watch video on their “textbook reader” (would this be the “Backpack Exception”?)

But is that enough of a niche to sustain the product?  My suspicion is that in order for the iPad to really take off, Apple would/will need to do something “game-changing” — like release an easy-to-use program allowing ordinary folks to create their own attractive multimedia ebooks that could be read on any ebook reader or personal computer.  Add to that a front/back facing camera for wireless videoconferencing on the go, and update the software to include first-rate handwriting recognition, and you might have a multi-purpose device worthy of a “Backpack Exception” or “Handbag Exception” or “Briefcase Exception.”

However, it’s clear that the iPad simply isn’t there yet.  Just as the iPhone OS wasn’t nearly as special at version 1.0 as it is today (you’re probably using version 3.1 or later, on a 3G or 3GS), so too will the iPad rise or fall based on its applications and its operating system.  It remains to be seen whether the iPad will remain an odd little niche player (like the MacBook Air, which gives nearly the portability of the iPad but a full-fledged MacOS environment), or whether it will become the “next big thing” in consumer electronics.

My personal guess is that it will remain a “niche player” but that it will significantly enlarge and redefine its niche along the way, especially if content vendors partner with Apple (imagine, “Buy a 3-year subscription to the New York Times online edition, and get an iPad free” — which may sound ludicrous at first, but given the costs of newsprint, printing and distribution, could actually at some point become a profit-maker for the NYT).  Of course, the “free” iPad would be the $499 base model, giving Apple lots of opportunity to “upsell” to the more expensive models.

Does the above make sense to you?  It’s probably a lot less fun than a rant, and my attempt at a rational analysis (camps 1 and 2 above) leaves out entirely two other less rational camps.  Certainly there exists a fanboy camp that would buy an Apple-branded Etch-a-Sketch while fawning over Steve Jobs’ genius in opening up a new computing paradigm. And certainly there are folks who dismiss Apple products out of hand simply because they are Apple products.  But I suspect the reality is somewhere between those two extremes.

I think I see the iPad as having a bit more potential than you currently recognize — perhaps because I have been right on the verge of buying an ebook reader, and I see the iPad as vastly superior to other ebook reader alternatives even in its current primitive stage. That doesn’t mean the iPad is even that great; it’s mostly a comment as to how poor the other ebook reader alternatives are at present.

I would love to see the Tomorrow’s World magazine, our booklets and our reprints (and of course the telecast) reach a wider audience on the iPad.  However, I would be among the first to acknowledge that the iPad at the moment is little more than a great big bundle of potential — much like Microsoft Bob, or the Zune, or the Edsel, or the Apple ///, or the Newton, or the G4 Cube — or any number of theoretically excellent products that failed miserably in the marketplace.  It will be interesting to see how the iPad develops over its first couple of generations.

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