The iPad’s Killer App: It’s Not A Computer

When I last wrote about the iPad — on the eve of its introduction by Apple — I was pretty much dead on in my speculation. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back — the writing was pretty much on the wall by then. No, I bring it up in order to mention what I missed. I said that even if the iPad turned out to be exactly what I envisioned, it would still be missing that “killer feature” — the ineffable something that would make it irresistible; something that would fill a need I didn’t even know existed yet. What I didn’t realize then — or for weeks after the iPad became a reality for that matter — was that I had identified that killer feature in the very same article in which I sought it.

Here’s what I said back then:

“That’s what I believe Apple’s going to unveil tomorrow….a whole new category of multi-purpose computing device. Heck, even take out the computing part from that description. To have the mass-market appeal that Apple will insist on in order to bring a device to market…it’s got to be something that isn’t perceived as a ‘computer,’ just like the iPod and iPhone aren’t perceived as computers.”

As it turns out, that “non-computerness” is the very thing that makes the iPad so appealing. Who’d have thought that the key to making a computer appeal to the general consumer would be to turn the computer into a consumer device? An appliance, even — no more difficult to understand and not much more difficult to use than a toaster. No wonder a geek like me would miss its real appeal — it’s not a geeky device.

Sure, we geeks will still be drawn to it — it’s amazing technology. But something that just appeals to geeks will never break out as anything but a niche product. No, the iPad has become a transcendent device because it appeals to the non-geeks; those who would never otherwise consider surfing the web on their couch, emailing at the breakfast table or stuffing a laptop in their beach bag. The iPad — much more than the Mac before it — truly is “for the rest of us.” And not just the rest of us who want to create spreadsheets or word processing documents. No, it’s for the rest of us who want to keep in contact with their grandkids and friends; who want to Google a restaurant, pull up their calendar, grab directions to the nearest movie theater, watch an episode of their favorite show or read a book on the bus. The iPad is not a computer — at least not to these folks. It’s whatever they need it to be at the moment — a slab of glass that becomes a scrap of note paper or a map or a magazine or a photo album — through technology they neither have to nor care to understand.

I, geek that I am, don’t need an iPad. Sure, it’s handy and sure, I’ll get plenty of use out of it. But armed already with my laptop and iPhone, it won’t change my life (at least not yet.) That doesn’t mean its not a game-changer, because I’m not the customer Apple is targeting with the iPad. The people I see with an iPad “out in the wild” are by and large people who would not otherwise have a computer with them. They are non-techies, the very embodiment of the mass market, whose lives are enhanced by the fact that they now have something magical — not technological — at their disposal. (Sir Arthur C. Clarke was right, after all.)

That Apple never refers to the iPad as a computer is no accident. That Apple routinely refers to the iPad as magical is not being trite. Computers are scary, full of arcane commands and file systems and viruses. Technology is intimidating, reserved for younger generations and geeks with chin beards who speak of mega-this and giga-that. An iPad is friendly, inviting and — in spite of its capabilities — simple. A computer responds to commands. An iPad anticipates desires. And as OS updates and apps evolve, its abilities will expand ever further in empowering yet incremental and incrementally intuitive ways.

The iPad will not replace laptops — at least not right away. We geeks will use it as something that fits into a heretofore unimagined “gap” between the iPhone and a laptop, and the non-geeks who buy an iPad would never have bought a laptop anyway. (Although some of them might have bought a notebook, and that’s just fine with Apple.)

The thing about the iPad is that it’s not a thing at all. The iPad has such mass appeal not because of what it is, because it’s designed to make what it is irrelevant, forgettable.

No, the iPad’s appeal comes not from what it is but what it does. 

And that’s everything.