iPad: A Reason For Being

This is the last article I intend to write about the iPad until I can actually get one in my hands and play with it. Until that happens the only thing I or any tech writer can do is hypothesize, speculate, and fantasize. As fun as that can be I’m about hypothesized, speculated, and fantasized out. I suspect many readers are as well. So this is it for me until March when I can get a 32GB WiFi iPad and give it a good once over.

A lot can happen between now and then and I suspect a lot will. Regardless of what does and does not happen there's one point I want to make abundantly clear: It won’t matter much what Apple does to advertise the iPad or how well they play the Media Game. It will hardly make a difference which pundits praise or pan the iPad. The only thing that will ultimately cause the iPad to succeed or fail is whether or not regular people see value in it.

Cool can only get you so far. Good looks can get you noticed. Likewise, a good price can get you in the door, but if the iPad is just a cheap but pretty face the public at large will toss it aside like pet rocks.

Form, function, and need fulfillment has to be the bedrock of the iPad or, as Jobs said, “ ...it has no reason for being.”

During the iPad media event Steve Jobs listed seven tasks that he believed the iPad needed to be good at to be relevant: browsing, email, photos, video, music, games, and eBooks. It is not that you can’t do these tasks well on smartphones and laptops -- you can with varying degrees of success -- it’s that Jobs believes that these tasks, more than others, will justify in consumer’s minds why they need to shell out at least $500 for another device.

I contend that there must be more than just those seven tasks because just being good at those seven things won’t do diddly but get a few iPads sold, not the millions that Apple needs to sell to proclaim this device a winner.

The iPad must be demonstrably easier, faster, and more accessible to more things that people want than anything currently available, including netbooks. It has to catch your attention at a glance, and once you are looking it, it has to prove beyond all doubt that the way it does things is far better than the way it was done before.

My sister-in-law, Thelma, who is a complete technophobe, surprised me during a visit a year or so ago when she showed me her iPhone. Her daughter had bought it for her and set it up and showed Thelma how to use contacts, write notes, and manage her email. Thelma never bothered with apps, doesn’t care about GPS and maps. She has a discreet set of tasks that she needs to do and loves how the iPhone does it. Watching her tap and swipe, you’d think she was born with the iPhone in hand.

Thelma had unknowingly become an iPhone evangelist. She would show off her device to anyone interested, not because she was trying to show how cool she was, but she wanted to show how useful the iPhone was to her and she could demonstrate how the iPhone made using a smartphone easier. Her friends, also non-techies and some who otherwise would have never owned a smartphone, saw this and bought iPhones and they unwittingly became evangelists too.

Apple’s iPhone ads just fanned the flames a bit, but the fire had already caught because the Thelmas of the world were all showing their friends why getting an iPhone was a good thing. 40 million iPhones later, tech-types still complain that the iPhone isn’t “open” and rail against Apple’s control over the iPhone environment. Meanwhile regular Joes, Janes, and Thelmas tell pollsters how satisfied they are with their iPhones. Now you tell me what matters, what the tech-heads tell us or what the Thelmas of the world say?

If my sister-in-law can find a reason to give up $500 for an iPad, then Apple will have a hit bigger than the iPhone on its hands.

Thelma's never heard of John Dvorak or Walt Mossberg, I don’t think she even knows I write about computers and technology. She couldn’t care less about multitasking or cameras, she just wants to know if the iPad is worthy of her $500. If she asks me, and I'm sure she will, I can tell her yes, but she needs to experience it for herself. Once she does, that’s it. Her friends will get one, and so on, and on.

Word of mouth will be the key to getting many interested in Apple's iPad, and the only way to generate positive word of mouth is for those who do get the device to have extremely positive experiences with it. Good is not good enough, and those seven tasks that Jobs listed are only a start. Thelma and her buddies need to look at this thing, play with it, and come away wondering how they ever got along without it. They, not pundits, need to get an iPad, use it, and say, “Wow!” Otherwise it has no reason for being.