Wednesday, 27 January 2010

iPad: The (attempted) Windows killer

(Well, you've got to admit, that's not something you'll be reading on most other weblogs today.)

Ten hours after the Apple iPad announcement, my overall reaction is that the product wasn't necessarily better or worse than I expected, but it was definitely different.

I expected an upsized extension to the iPod Touch, with a focus on watching videos, browsing, and playing games. The device can certainly do all of that, but Apple spent a huge amount of time demonstrating features I didn't expect -- e-mail management, productivity applications, and typing with the on-screen keyboard.

I know many of you think those are just checkoff items, and you may be right. We're all trying to read Apple's strategic intentions from a single product announcement, and that's hard to do. But here's how I view it: I believe Apple is serious when it spends five minutes demonstrating a feature, and I believe they actually said what they meant to say during the announcement. Specifically:

--Apple's identity is as a mobile device company.
--Netbooks suck and Apple can do something better.
--It's amazingly comfortable and easy to type on a touch screen.

(I'm not sure I agree with the last one, by the way, but we're talking about what Apple believes, and Steve sold the onscreen keyboard thing hard.)

If they really believe all of those things, then the iPad starts to look like Apple's idea of the next logical stage in the evolution of personal computing. It takes everything Apple learned from iPod and iPhone and applies that to a redesign of the low-end personal computer. It's Apple's vision of the netpad done right -- not a PC accessory, but a lightweight portable device that can replace the PC for many basic usages. The idea wouldn't be to kill the PC outright, but to nudge it toward the workstation space, in the process gradually eating away at the market share of Windows.

Yes, I believe killing Windows is still very high on Steve's personal to-do list. Always.

If you start from that assumption, a lot of the other things Apple said today make more sense. Why did they spend a year rewriting iWork for the tablet? Because you need an office suite in order to displace a PC (you don't need it for a media tablet). Why price that suite at just ten bucks a module? Because that profoundly screws up the pricing for Office on netbooks (the only way Microsoft can match that pricing is to destroy the value of its cash cow).

Why didn't we get a more comprehensive media store? I was expecting an entertainment tablet, and so I thought there would be a much more aggressive push for third party media developers. Apple did create the iBooks store, but they don't seem to be reaching out to individual authors the way I expected. And other media (video and animation) remains in iTunes rather than getting its own purchasing experience. To me, the iPad feels more like a netbook replacement that also does books, rather than a media tablet that also does spreadsheets.

Will it work?

If Apple's plan really is to displace netbooks, it faces some interesting challenges. One of the greatest appeals of a netbook is that it is a fully functional Windows notebook computer (cramped and awkward, but fully functional). Computer users have historically been very resistant to compromising on some core features. Will they accept a netbook that doesn't have a physical keyboard or a hard drive, and that can't run Flash and Java? And as Chris Dunphy (link) asked me today, will Apple give iPad applications more freedom to multitask than they have on the iPhone?

I don't know. And so I really don't know how the product will sell.

It doesn't help that the marketing for the iPad feels muddled. Apple's website tonight reads, "Our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price." Ugh, it's a big bag of features. As I asked in my pre-launch post yesterday, who is it for and what problem does it solve? The question hasn't been answered crisply.

At least Apple got the base price of the product right. It's still above what I think most consumers will pay for a tablet, but Apple's within the realm of believability, and over time I hope the price will come down further. If it does, and if Apple markets it strongly, the product may be able to find its own market.

Meanwhile, I'm sure the iPad will have an important impact on some other companies. Namely...

Nokia: Step your game up. Several years ago, Nokia said it was re-creating itself as a computer company. Now Apple says it has re-created itself as a mobile company. Not just a mobile company, but supposedly the world's biggest mobile device company as measured by revenue. Whether that statistic is actually meaningful or something Apple manipulated through clever accounting, it must have driven the Nokia management team nuts -- which was undoubtedly Apple's intent.

Now Nokia has to decide whether it wants to compete with Apple in yet another product category, at a time when it already seems a bit overwhelmed. It's a very tough decision. (And please don't tell me the N900 is an iPad competitor. It's too small.)

Is Kindle in trouble? Not yet. The Amazon Kindle vs. iPad competition is going to be very interesting. My first reflex was to say that Kindle is in trouble -- iPad is a much more capable device, and the convergence advocates will tell you that a general-purpose tablet will eat a single-purpose e-reader. But Kindle is half the price of the iPad, even less when you factor in the cost of 3G for the iPad plus a service plan. Plus its screen, although only black and white, produces less eyestrain than a backlit LCD display. I don't think Kindle takes a big hit in the near term. In the long term, I am worried about Amazon's ability to compete with general-purpose tablets, but maybe Amazon's goal is to own the bookstore rather than the book reader. In that case, they should make sure the Kindle app works really well on the iPad.

The one thing I'm sure Amazon should not do is attempt to compete with Apple in the general-purpose tablet business. That's like challenging the Australian national rugby team to a drinking match.

The mobile operators: Pay attention to your pricing plans. I think this will be one of the most interesting floats in the iPad parade. Apple is now making its second attempt to bypass the subsidy model used by the operators. If Apple had been willing to bundle a two-year wireless contract with the iPad, it probably could have gotten the device subsidized down to about $299 or $350. But the downside would have been a $60 or higher monthly service plan, with soft caps on the amount of video someone could browse. It will be interesting to see how customers react to Apple's choice, especially when other companies sell subsidized net tablets for very low initial prices. In the phone market, Apple had to give in and accept the subsidy. We'll see if history repeats itself.

It will also be interesting to see how AT&T makes out with the revenue from iPad subscribers. At first glance, $30 a month for unlimited data sounds like a bad deal for AT&T. But keep in mind that data plans usually include several hundred dollars for the subsidy; the operator supposedly doesn't even turn a profit until sometime in the second year. With these plans, AT&T makes money from day one. So it may be able to make a better profit than you'd expect. Still, it seems a bit odd for a company with a network as congested as AT&T's to be adding a device designed to stream high-quality video from the web.

PC application developers: Pain.
If the iPad really is Apple's vision of the future of personal computing, it's an ugly world for today's PC application developers. By pricing the pieces of iWork at $9.99 each, Apple has effectively created a price ceiling for major productivity applications. How many PC app companies can make money at that price per unit? And remember, that's the ceiling. It's time to start rethinking your business model...

No matter how well the iPad sells, it's a very interesting experiment worthy of the Apple brand, and I'm sure it'll drive a legion of imitators from Asia. I wish we had a few more hardware companies like Apple who were willing to mix up the market like this; innovation would move a lot faster.

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