iPad Asks: Can I Squeeze In Here?

In his iPad Keynote, Steve Jobs stressed two critical points: (1) The iPad is a new category of portable computing device, fitting in between the iPhone/iPod touch and the MacBook; (2) To succeed in this new middle category, the iPad will have to do at least some things better than the devices at either end.

In the few days that have passed since the iPad announcement, I have spent a good deal of time pondering these two points. Although I reserve my final judgment until the iPad is released, I am ready to take an initial look at how well the iPad squeezes in to its middle seat.

The iPad as your only computer. Apple has not positioned the iPad as a total replacement for a MacBook. This is good. The iPad cannot serve as anyone’s only computing device. Even ignoring the obvious examples of power users who demand a Mac Pro or who require the speed and screen size of a 27” iMac, an iPad cannot even stand in as a complete substitute for a white MacBook.

First off, the iPad ultimately requires syncing to another computer (presumably a Mac, for readers here). If you want to back up an iPad or print documents created on an iPad or any of a likely assortment of other tasks that an iPad will not be capable of doing entirely on its own, you’ll need a Mac.

Second, if you require any Mac software not available for an iPad, from Microsoft Office to Adobe’s Creative Suite to Apple’s own iLife software, you’ll need a Mac. I believe this includes most Mac users.

The day may come when this is no longer the case. But that day is not coming any time soon.

The iPad as the uncomputer. I have read several articles (such as this one) arguing that the iPad will be successful for the same reasons that the Nintendo Wii succeeded. The Wii did not have anything close to the graphic power of a Sony PlayStation. Because of this, hard-core gamers initially dissed the Wii (just as many techno-geeks have already dissed the iPad). But it turns out that hard-core gamers make up only a small minority of the population. The “rest of us” found the Wii appealing, and it became a huge hit. In the same way, so the logic goes, your grandmother (and anyone else that fits a technophobic stereotype) will rally to the iPad as the uncomputer computer.

I find this argument appealing — especially so when I consider what the iPad might have been if Apple had equipped it Mac OS X instead of the iPhone OS. While the geek in me would have preferred Mac OS X, my gut tells me that the simpler, cleaner, less-prone-to-problems, easier-to-understand iPhone OS is a better match for the iPad’s target audience.

However, the analogy suffers for the same reason I just mentioned: the iPad cannot be your grandma’s only computer, unless she plans on visiting you every time she needs to sync it.

The iPad as a super iPod touch. Some critics have complained that the iPad is little more than a large iPod touch.

First of all, they are wrong. The iPod touch does not, and will not, run the iPad version of iWork applications. Neither will the touch run what are likely to be a slew of third-party productivity applications released over the next year specifically for the iPad. I am virtually certain that, a year from now, no one will be thinking of the iPad as “just an iPod touch with a larger screen.” Thanks to third-party developers, it will be useful in ways we can’t even imagine right now.

Second, to the extent that the critics are right, so what? A larger screen iPod touch can be a big success. After all, there are various screen sizes available for Macs. No one is suggesting that MacBooks or iMacs should only come in one size. So why not a larger iPod touch? If nothing else, the larger screen and faster processor should make the iPad a much better (if somewhat less portable) game machine than the iPod touch. And games are what the iPod touch has been all about.

People have complained that the iPad does not have a phone or a camera. Guess what? The iPod touch doesn’t have a phone or a camera either. And it’s been selling quite well, thank you. There’s room to expand the touch market with the iPad (see this TMO article by Bryan Chaffin for a related take).

While we’re on the subject of what is missing from the iPad, people made similar complaints about the missing elements of the original iPhone: “It doesn’t have voice dialing or MMS, unlike almost every other mobile phone on the market; how can it possible compete?.” The iPhone somehow became a success anyway (and now has all those missing features). As I commented on Twitter: “Those who focus on what the iPad can’t do - see it as failing. Those who focus on what it can do - see at least the potential for success.”

The iPad as your second computer. Here is where the iPad starts looking especially appealing to me. As I have written about before, my main computer is a Mac Pro; I use my MacBook Pro primarily when I am not at home. I take it on trips and to user group meetings. I would love it if an iPad could replace my MacBook Pro here. An iPad would be more convenient to use on an airplane and (especially with a keyboard accessory) could function well enough to replace my MacBook for almost everything I do with it. I would miss a few features, especially the ability to have more than one application open at the same time, but the trade-off could well be worth it.

As ably pointed out by Chris Breen, the iPad as a second computer could also function better than a MacBook in several other contexts — such as in the kitchen as a recipe database or in the back seat of your car as a movie player for your kids. Chris suggests that the iPad might even be great for students, using iBooks as a textbook reader. My first reaction was that students are likely to reject the iPad here because they will (once again!) need a MacBook as well — and will not want to shell out the additional bucks. I’m not so sure. The combined cost of an iPad plus its virtual textbooks may well turn out to be less than students now spend on their physical textbooks.

Bottom line. On balance, I see plenty of squeezing room for the iPad between the iPhone and the MacBook. That’s why I remain confident that it will be a huge success.

I do have one major lingering concern. While we are not at this crossroads yet, the day may yet come when Apple expands the capabilities of the iPad to the point where it can function as a standalone device. This might lead to a day when all but the most demanding power users choose an iPad over a MacBook. The iPad wins the day!

Sounds great, except for the closed nature of the iPhone OS. As I asked in my previous column, “Do I really want to give up my MacBook for a device that allows me to add applications only via Apple’s App Store?…Do I really want a replacement device that Apple appears to have more control over than I do?” While Apple may open up the iPhone OS in the years ahead, I remain pessimistic about the prospect. That’s why I will be exploring this topic in more detail in a future column. Stay tuned.