apple ipad 1 Apple iPad

So the Apple iPad is going to be released in 3 days. Dutifully, the online world is abuzz with predictions on the “millions” of iPads that are going to be sold. And a game changer it is. Powerful voices are chiming in. Kleiner Perkins, that venerable VC firm has doubled its iFund to $200 million to fund potential iPad developers. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com is very bullish. Some people have started camping outside Apple stores, in what is turning out to an Apple Product release tradition, to be the first in line to buy the magic slate.

Yet, much as I try and rationalize this, I don’t get it. However much I want to think that the Apple iPad is a game changer, I just cannot logically rationalize exactly why. So, what is the iPad really? Is it a fancy digital photo frame? An e-reader? An emailing device? A netbook – just to surf the internet? Is it a workstation for people on the go? Is it all of the above? Is it none of the above? Or is it really just an idea – to be defined and crystallized by the apps that will inevitably be developed?

To understand and answer all these questions, it is important to start with Apple’s established successes. The first was the iPod. The iPod was a success not because of the first mover advantage. Tons of digital MP3 players existed back when the iPod was introduced. What really propelled its success was the integrated ecosystem with iTunes (after it was introduced for the Windows platform), very savvy marketing and an incredibly elegant device with just the right amount of features.

Then came the iPhone. The phenomenon of the iPhone is much easier to understand. The iPhone, when it was launched, addressed a known gap in the marketplace – a phone with phenomenally attractive user interface not tied to the “walled garden” of carrier specific applications (remember BREW?). An iPod and a phone in one device. And again, an incredibly elegant piece of hardware. This blogger feels that the iPhone would have been an even bigger success ( in market penetration terms if not in terms of revenue contribution margins) had Apple not decided to stick with a sole-carrier strategy in the United States – but that is another story.

However, note the similarities between the two examples above. Both addressed a void in the marketplace. Both fulfilled very specific customer needs. And both went beyond existing product paradigm to shake up the marketplace.

Now, lets look at the iPad. My sense is that the iPad is being positioned as too many things for too many people. And lets talk about each attribute and see what the device really brings to the customer.

a) iPad as an entertainment device: Fair point. It has a gorgeous screen. And probably has enough juice in its battery to crank out a couple of movies in a transatlantic flight. And most of all, it integrates with the existing iTunes content ecosystem. Those are all plusses. Now, my caveats. Its too big to be used as a music device – the iPad will never replace my iPod as my music player. I might use it to download movies from iTunes occasionally - but I am not convinced where I would actually use it. At home? No. While on a flight? Maybe. But more importantly, I can build a case to use it on my daily train commute to work. So what can I do (from purely using the iPad as an entertainment device) –  Watch YouTube? – Well, not unless I sign up for the $30.00 a month 3G plan (unless I am on the Acela Express which now has Wifi). Read the paper (We’ll come to it – but there are better devices in the marketplace for reading). Play Games? – Sure – but don’t you think the device is too bulky to carry around for most adults to just play games on it?

Conclusion: The iPad is not going to be that hot an entertainment device where it really matters (being on the move) – unless, the user subscribes to the wireless plan. Fact is, most places in the United States does not have free Wifi. As a matter of fact (and I travel a lot every week), not even every Airport, Marriott, Hyatt or Starwoods hotels have free Wifi ( if they have Wifi at all). And a lot of places that do, the connection speeds are excruciatingly slow due to user overload.

b) iPad as a workstation: This is frankly, the biggest bunk I have heard. Why? Simple reason. The iPad is NOT a device that can be easily typed on (think, the iPhone keyboard – 5 times bigger) – try balancing your device and typing with both hands at the same time. Checking emails – my BlackBerry does it much more conveniently; I dont need the inconvenience of taking out a 5″ screen device for checking emails. And while, there might be a case made for working on documents and such on the iPad, most people already have a laptop (with a real keyboard) to do that. Sorry Steve. This is good marketing. But will not work.

Conclusion: Sorry, I don’t think it will make the cut as a work device.

c) iPad as an e-reader: This is where it gets interesting. During the launch, one of the key attributes that was flouted by Steve Jobs was the iPad’s ability as an e-reader. And to be fair, some of the GUI features demonstrated was very Apple. And it was mind-blowing. However, as I briefly opined earlier, as an e-reader, the iPad suffers on two counts – a) an e-reader needs to feel like a book when held (especially for prolonged periods of time); The Amazon Kindle does – it is just of the right size and weight. I have not held the iPad – but it doesn’t seem like it will. Its too big and presumably, just a tad too heavy. b) It’s screen is back-lit. And that to me is the biggest issue as an e-reader. If I feel the same reading from the iPad as I do on my laptop – reading a book on it will not be the same experience. I can’t comment on how long I can read on the iPad without my eyes hurting – but being back-lit has battery life implications. As well as to me as a customer, not presenting me enough of a value proposition to spend 400 bucks on it.

Conclusion: Promising. Initially, it might be right for some readers but not for others. What would be interesting is how magazines and news papers react to this new platform (especially, if the iPad gains enough traction in the marketplace). And it is here where the iPad has promise. I personally feel that most consumers won’t subscribe to the 30 dollar a month plan. And as an Amazon Kindle owner, I feel the ability to download books where ever I want to (using Amazon Whispernet on Sprint) is one of the greatest advantages of the device (other than an e-ink screen); In the case of Kindle, the wireless connection is free. That being said, you can’t of course browse the internet on the Kindle.

So where does it lead us – It brings me back to my value proposition of buying the iPad. To me, there is none. But I do realize that most customers don’t buy an Apple device by doing a functional analysis. They buy it because Apple makes very desirable products. Which just work.

So I may be wrong about this – but my opinion is that the iPad with its synergies of the platform that exists today needs to evolve to make the device desirable (and hopefully, useful). And maybe that Kleiner Perkins fund will help.

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Update (4/1): So the first of the “sanctioned” reviews of the iPad have come out today. Am posting the links and some excerpts – pick your own poison folks..

Review 1:

Looking at the iPad From Two Angles by David Pogue (NY Times)

The Apple iPad is basically a gigantic iPod Touch.

There’s an e-book reader app, but it’s not going to rescue the newspaper and book industries (sorry, media pundits). The selection is puny (60,000 titles for now). You can’t read well in direct sunlight. At 1.5 pounds, the iPad gets heavy in your hand after awhile (the Kindle is 10 ounces). And you can’t read books from the Apple bookstore on any other machine — not even a Mac or iPhone.

When the iPad is upright, typing on the on-screen keyboard is a horrible experience; when the iPad is turned 90 degrees, the keyboard is just barely usable (because it’s bigger). A $70 keyboard dock will be available in April, but then you’re carting around two pieces.

Review 2:

Apple iPad Review: Laptop Killer? Pretty Close Walt Mossberg – Wall Street Journal

This is a serious content creation app that should help the iPad compete with laptops and can import Microsoft Office files. However, only the word processor exports to Microsoft’s formats, and not always accurately. In one case, the exported Word file had misaligned text. When I then tried exporting the document as a PDF file, it was unreadable.

Other Reviews: A collection of all reviews can be found here.

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