Let's stop the iPad whining: It's not about the hardware

It's almost embarrassing...Correct that, it's big time embarrassing, for me to read some of the public's response to yesterday's announcement of the Apple iPad.

Yes, we know that the name is thematically close to a certain feminine hygiene product. No, we don't need to read the obvious over and over in the comments section of every tech and mainstream Web site, blog, Facebook page, Twitter stream, and (gee, thanks, Brian Williams) nightly newscast. We get it. It may have been funny when we were in the second grade, but now that we're all supposedly adults, it strikes me as needlessly juvenile.

The world already thinks that geeks live in their mothers' basements and emerge into the real world only when their carefully managed stashes of snack cakes and Mountain Dew run low. This isn't going to help erase the stereotypes anytime soon.

Missing the point

The fact that so much of the harsh criticism seems to focus on the name suggests not everyone fully understands why Apple is unique among manufacturers in its ability to grab and keep our attention. It isn't, and never was, about the hardware.

Carmi Levy Wide Angle Zoom (v.2)While Apple is exceptionally adept at leveraging the latest principles of industrial design to create products that elegantly fit into our day-to-day lives, its experience with the iPod, iPhone, and now the iPad reinforce its belief that great hardware can only get you so far. Eventually, someone else will introduce a competing device that looks better, has a more compelling feature set, massages those features together more effectively, does so at a more affordable price point, and makes anything that came before it look like yesterday's news. If you're banking on the sexiness of the device itself (which pretty much describes most hardware-focused vendors these days) you're missing the big picture.

So let's stop whining about what wasn't included in iPad v1.0, shall we? Because things like memory card slots and a USB jack can easily be added to v2.0 or 3.0. Apple never gives away the store with the first release of a product: You'd think we would have all learned from the iPhone experience, which was introduced with glaring hardware gaps (lack of 3G, anyone?) that have since been largely addressed. Indeed, three years since it was first announced, complaints about the iPhone's hardware capabilities are almost inaudible. The App Store gets all the bouquets and brickbats these days, as it should. Because the device is little more than a channel to bigger and more lucrative things for Apple and its carrier/developer partners.

So if it isn't the hardware, then what is it? From where I sit, the glue that keeps it all together once the newness of the physical device has worn off is the surrounding ecosystem. The iBooks Store now that now joins the iTunes and App Store ecosystems promises to do for book publishers what iTunes did for the music industry. Apple's masterstroke lies in how it extended an already successful platform, giving itself a natural head start that one can imagine has already sent Google's Android team scraping the cupboards for a very different type of tablet.

It's all potential for publishing

Is Apple's new offering fully baked yet? For book publishers, not even close. So far Apple's got deals with only book five companies, and availability of both the device and the software/content distribution landscape that surrounds it will be US-only for now.

But the potential is there for all of us to recognize once we stop trading moronic jokes about the name.

Also still firmly in the potential pile is the iPad's capability to transform the newspaper and magazine industries. I was impressed with the brief demo delivered by The New York Times because it showed, however fleetingly, the possibilities inherent in transitioning a traditional paper into tablet form. It isn't enough to dump the paper-based version into an electronic device, and yesterday's demo reinforced that the Times and Apple get that. From what little we saw from the Gray Lady this week, there's at least some value-add there, and I look forward to trying it out on my kitchen table sometime soon.

Despite the promise, the business model that would, indeed should, surround it was nowhere to be seen yesterday. There was no mention of other publications, no sign of this becoming an open platform that'll be made easily available to other publishers, no mention of a subscription model that would make it a no-brainer for readers to finally make the switch from paper to screen. And please don't tell me you read it for free on the Web...we all know that experience is ridiculously lame.

I'll forgive the omissions because Apple needs to leave a little in reserve to allow for future growth. What matters here is that Apple will in all likelihood become the first vendor to successfully sell tablets in a market sector where other vendors have gone to die for the past 15 years. And while the juveniles among us mock its name, it becomes increasingly apparent that there has been a need for in-between, tablet-like devices like this all along, but no one's figured out the secret sauce that will get mainstream consumers to buy in.

Because laptops suck

If we're being brutally frank, laptops and desktops are great at getting work done but lousy tools for exploring content. We've held on to our paper-based subscriptions and physical books for as long as we have because the tech revolution has failed to offer us a compelling alternative. While everyone else has been trying to sell modified laptops or tweaked smartphones to fill in this middle ground of sorts, the iPad finally gets close enough to the usability mark -- with the obvious exception of balancing the thing on your lap for an entire two-hour movie -- to get the tablet party started in earnest.

The iPad won't replace netbooks, laptops, or any other device in our personal and business inventory, so I won't waste anyone's time drawing comparisons. Because it's a net new category, it'll be a tougher sell to post-recessionary consumers wary of adding yet another costly doodad to their lives. But once we look past the childish jokes about its name, we'll be able to focus on how Apple's growing ecosystem could potentially change the way we acquire and consume all forms of content. That, more than any slick piece of hardware, is the big story here.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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