iPad; but do iWant?

So, that’s the long-awaited Apple tablet, then? Hmmm. I think I’ll file that under “Interesting, but …”

On one level you have to feel sorry for Apple – there’s so much frenzied anticipation ahead of their product launches that the details can’t help but leak in advance and then get multiplied dozens of times over by the hyperactive Chinese whispers building upon one another. By the time the product finally makes its début it’s hard not to be left with the overriding feelings of “is that it?” and find many of the features that were by-now expected to be missing. So let’s start with: it’s really just a large iPhone. Is that a game changer; is it going to be a huge success?

It’s hard to tell with Apple products – I always think that you really have no idea whether you’ll want an Apple product until you see it in the flesh. Products I’ve been very ‘meh’ about when I’ve seen pictures or videos of, I’ve ended up falling in love with then I actually see it in the store. My original PowerBook G4 for example, or the current iMac range. But sometimes it doesn’t work, and an example of that is the white iMac from about 4 years ago, that was too thick and plastic-looking and looked cheap and rather like a Fisher Price toy rather than an expensive piece of hardware. Or the current Mac Pro range, which are just too big, starkly industrial and domineering for any real domestic setting, no matter how stylish that aluminium casing looks.

No, you have to sit yourself in front of an Apple product to know whether you’ll fall in love with it or not. The new iPod nano might not look very different in photos, but you compare one of them side by side with its predecessor and lust instantly sets in. And of course, the iPhone is proof of this – on paper it’s just a phone with a touch screen, but spend five minutes in the company of someone with an iPhone and you’ll be as addicted to it as you would be if they had been feeding you crack cocaine.

So putting the “iWant” lust factor to one side for a moment, I’ll address the bigger concern I have with the iPad. (And no, it’s not the name – you can titter if you want and make smirking references to Tampons, but that will quickly pass. Remember how stupid the name “iPod” sounded for a music player all those years ago? And yet now people struggle not to say “iPod” when they talk about mobile music players, and the name has entered the word and the concept of “podcasting” to the English language. We smirked at iPod, but it worked; I’m betting the same will be true of iPad.)

Nor is the big problem any teething problem about things such as data plans, product availability, or how robust it will be (will the screen scratch easily? What if you drop it? Will it bend if you’re carrying it in a bad? What sort of case will you need for it to protect it from all these hazards? Will a case bulk it up so much that it’s no different to carry around than a netbook or small laptop?)

No, the biggest problem with the iPad is: I’m not really sure what it’s for.

It’s been a question that’s been nagging at me for the past year or so, as speculation mounted and Apple gradually got closer to confirming that they were producing a tablet computer. I never saw the point of tablets when Microsoft tried to tout them as the Next Big Thing either, and while those were heavy, ugly, ill-conceived things, I still don’t “get” them today even with the beautiful, shiny gloss of an Apple design added to the mix. What’s it for?

I think that’s what I expected – no, needed – Apple to provide an answer to in this product launch. Give me a reason to want one, to think this is will be an inevitable, invaluable part of my life. Teach me, open my eyes, show me what I’ve been missing.

Big ask? Certainly. But nothing Apple hasn’t done before. It was crystal clear what the iPod was for the minute it was launched – a music player. That it’s grown so much bigger in the intervening years doesn’t change the fact that it’s still basically a music player. That’s a basic function that we can understand, see the need for, and which then directly taps into the “iNeed therefore iGet” circuit in our consumer brain.

Similarly the iPhone for all its functionality can still be boiled down to “it’s a phone. With an iPod!” That was the equation that led to my rationalising the expenditure (I needed to replace an antique mobile phone and an even older iPod, therefore the iPhone was an obvious purchase.) Looking further afield, the business case for a laptop is also just as evident: you need to take your computer with you and not just leave it at the office, hence the explosion in the laptop market.

But a tablet? What does it offer that my current set-up doesn’t? If I’m at home or the office, won’t I use my desktop computer? If I’m on the move won’t I stick with the fully-featured laptop rather than the cut down features of the iPad? Or if I can use a limited feature set, just stick with an iPhone?

I simply can’t see the point of getting one right now. It might fit into the gap between iPhone and laptop very neatly, but is there actually a user/market need in that tiny sliver? I’d expected Apple to sell me the concept by, say, making the iPad the de facto book reader for people on the move – the saviour of the book, magazine and newspaper, and the slayer of the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader just Apple brushed aside Sony Walkman and “ordinary” mobile phones in the past. Instead the launch seemed to oddly sideline the e-book aspect: yes it’s there but it’s no a core reason to buy the iPad. If anything, it looks as though it is the gaming aspect that will rise to become the main selling point of the iPad, and the problem there is that I’m really not much a gamer. At all. So I just don’t see why I would want one of these, even if I do end up walking into an Apple Store in a few months time and falling in lust-at-first-sight with one of these.

One undoubted triumph however is the pricing – just $499 for the entry level model? Even with an aggressively anti-UK conversation rate that should make it no more than £450, which for something so much bigger than the entry-level, lower-spec iPhone is really amazingly good value. In fact – will it undermine sales of the iPhone? Is the iPhone due a pricing revision?

But of course this is just iPad 1.0. The first version of the iPhone was rather uninspiring too, and critics predicted it would be a major failure. Now it’s merrily on its way to taking over the world (okay, I exaggerate. A little.) The iPad may well do the same, especially if it builds a comparable ecosystem of App Stores around it, and in two years time the laptop market might be in freefall as the iPad takes over and we’re all carrying one around with us.

That’s especially when and if it gains some of the features attributed to it by the overcranked pre-launch gossip – things like cameras for video conferencing, which seems so obvious a use for a tablet of this kind that its omission does seem rather odd. But maybe Apple like stocking up all this feverish speculation so that they can capture all the fanboy expectations, and then take them away and package them into the v2.0 user requirements speculation.

In which case, 12 months from now could prove to be a far more interesting and significant moment in the history of tablet computing. But 27 January 2010? Not so much. I’m just not that sold on it, not yet. Even if I’m seen salivating at the Apple Store in months to come, I’m going to need a lot of convincing before iLust turns into iPay.


  1. Seb Crump

    Agree; agree; agree… yep tweeted about v. slim gap; v much agree – definitely more interested in v2, or perhaps a OS upgrade.

    Fascinating to ponder what the update cycle will be and how it will impact on update cycles and existence of other Apple hardware: will we not see new iPhone until pre-Christmas as they wouldn’t want to harm the iPad adoption over next two quarters? Will v2 be in a year’s time to keep momentum or 18 months to try and capture return to college 2011? Will they phase out non-Pro MacBooks?

    However, on further reflection and watching the promo video I do find my fingers twitching, because I wanted one just the other evening (although I didn’t know it). You see, I’ve never had a laptop, never needed the ‘portability’ (I still think they’re generally a bit heavy and cumbersome) and preferred better integrated and bigger screens on iMacs. Now I have an iPhone I can certainly see the benefits and fun of portable computing power. Back to the other evening, sitting in front of the TV – I’ve sent the occasional tweet from in front of the TV, but couldn’t/wouldn’t write a blog post on the iPhone; the iMac is out of reach in the spare room/study… Jess was half-watching and reading/commenting on some blogs on her MBP… I was suddenly envious, but certainly don’t want a laptop… wanted something more substantial to tap away on… in the promo video there are several users sitting on a sofa…

    …and there I was thinking that I was immune to subliminal advertising :/

  2. Hi Andrew, great post! I agree with you that it’s hard to tell what it’s really for. I don’t think it will be much of a kindle killer because of the relationship Amazon already has with publishers. The big downer for me is a lack of camera. How am I supposed to scan someone’s card, or run a face recognition app, or use Google’s picture search?

    What do you think Apple should’ve come out with instead?

    Cheers, Barce

  3. andrewlewin

    Hi Barce, thanks for the comments. I confess I’m not really bother by the lack of a camera myself, but clearly from a great many comments – yours most definitely among them – it’s clearly a major point for many.

    What do I think Apple should have come out with? I really don’t know. That’s why this launch intrigued me so much, because I’d been sceptical about tablet computers and really wanted Apple to convert me, so that I could slap my forehead and go “Oh course! THAT’s why I need one!” They didn’t do that (and if they can’t, maybe no one can) so I’m still ambivalent about it.

    Interesting to hear that the advertising is working on you Seb and you’re already starting to sip the Apple Kool-Aid! I think a lot of Apple products succeed like that once you try it in person, you start to picture how you’d use it in daily use and after that, you’re hooked. A music player and a phone are just more immediate hooks, but there’s no reason why the iPad won’t grow organically to fit a need that we never knew we had. The question is, will it grow like like wildfire like the iPod did, or die without finding its niche like Apple TV?

    Update cycles; interesting question, hadn’t thought of that. By instinct is that it shouldn’t, and won’t, but I agree it might.

    [BLOG UPDATE: added a paragraph on cost toward the end.]

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