Understanding the iPad Starts with Understanding Apple

As John Martellaro predicted, there are a lot of folks who don't understand that the iPad is not for them, and those people are, predictably, dismissing it. No one needs it, it doesn't have this or that, and there's just no need for it, "they" say.

I don't have to reach too far into my Nostradamus Bag to predict that those people will largely be drowned out by the chorus of cash registers ringing up sales of the device, and it's not even a real stretch to predict that many of those kvetching will end up owning and loving an iPad, probably before the year is out.

Be that as it may, and as much fun as it is to laugh at the reactionary minority, I thought it would be useful to try and take a closer look at why Apple is releasing this device.

And I think I want to start by referencing a column I wrote in April of 2009 called "Apple's Tim Cook All But Screams 'iPod Super Touch!'" In that piece I said that Apple COO Tim Cook was dismissing the netbook products on the market without dismissing the market itself, and that the company was working on some kind of iPhone OS device to compete in that space.

More specifically, I wrote: "Let's get back to the iPod Super Touch -- I don't think that's what it will really be called, but it works to instantly convey what I mean, which is a device with a touchscreen that runs iPhone Software that is larger than current iPods, probably in the 7-10" range."

I furthermore added that it would run apps from the App Store. In a follow up column arguing that Apple would not release a Mac OS X-based netbook, I wrote that, "Folks seem to want to be able to do e-mail, tweet, browse the Interwebs, maybe do some blogging or light writing. Perhaps others like to watch movies or other video, or maybe listen to some tunes while their flipping through photos with a friend. These are, of course, things people can and do on their iPhones and iPod touches."

For my victory dance today, I'll add: "Nanny nanny boo boo - I was right."

My awesomeness aside, the things I identified back then as the heart of Apple's approach to the netbook market were laid out much more clearly by Steve Jobs in the introduction of his iPad presentation. If you don't understand the iPad or think there's no use for this device, a close examination of what he said might well help you understand why Apple is releasing it, and more importantly, why it will find success in the marketplace.

So, let's look at what Mr. Jobs said. He started by asking, "Is there room for a third category of device in the middle, something that's between a laptop and a smartphone?"

This question is at the heart of the netbook/iPad issue, and I have zero doubt that Apple's execs and engineers literally asked asked it of themselves and debated the issue with each other for some time. After all, netbooks exploded starting in late 2008, and sales of the devices propelled little known (in the West) companies like Acer and Asus into being among the top PC makers on the planet as measured in unit sales.

The answer that Apple's people appear to have come up with was yes, there is room for a third category of products. What separates Apple from the PC vendors, however, was how the company pushed beyond that basic answer and established a sort of test for how they might go about addressing this emerging market.

Said Mr. Jobs in his media event: "In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks. They're going to have to be far better at doing some really important things. Better than the laptop, better than the smartphone."

Steve Jobs QuoteThat's a pretty high bar, and if you ask me, the PC vendors asked themselves only one question, "Can we make it cheaper than a laptop?"

And it was this approach to the market that Apple had been so vigorous in dismissing and criticizing, but the company picked some categories it thought it could make better than on a laptop and smartphone, namely: Web browsing, e-mail, photo-viewing, video-watching, music listening, games, and reading eBooks.

"If there's going to be a third category of device," Mr. Jobs said, "it's going to have to be better at these kinds of tasks than a laptop or a smartphone. Otherwise it has no reason for being." [Emphasis added]

"Otherwise it has no reason for being." That's some powerful stuff, and I'll stress that this is is emblematic of what separates Apple from its competition.

Oh sure, Mr. Jobs presented these categories as the categories that must meet that standard in order to justify the product, but in reality the list itself has been tailored for those categories that Apple thought it could meet with the iPad.

The real question is not whether or not the iPad has to have a camera (I would like it to have one), or should be able to multitask (I want it to), or whether or not Apple is fudging when it says the device supports 720p High Definition video when it doesn't have the pixels to do so.

No, the question is can it do some things better than a laptop and better than a smartphone. If it can, the market will embrace it (especially at the $499 price point!), and the device will be a hit. What you and I as individuals want for it will not get in the way of other people finding ways to use it for those things it can do better than the devices on either side of it.

To look at it any other way is myopic and reactionary, or so I rule from my Throne of Judgement™.

And, based on what I've seen so far, I think Apple has achieved its goal in most of those categories, at the very least.