appeal to the masses

Obviously, it has been some time since I last wrote.  I usually save my rants for private conversation, but for whatever reason (which will be explored), I feel the need to explain my thinking about the reaction to the iPad.

Speculation about Apple’s entry to the tablet market has been persistent since OS X’s introduction, particularly given the context of Apple’s technical achievement with the Newton.  Like the iPad, the Newton was intended to re-invent personal computing.  Another possible parallel is that the end product was pronounced to be complementary to the Mac rather than its replacement.

In the lead-up to the announcement, rumors set expectations that the product to be released would be a tablet Mac.  The introduction of the MacBook Air gave some credibility to the idea that a nice tablet Mac was technically feasible – subtracting the keyboard and flipping the screen would give a thin, light, and adequately-powerful tablet.

Still, I didn’t understand how such a Mac machine would make sense on the software side.  OS X software is built with a certain interface paradigm in mind:  the mouse and keyboard.  The size of the controls and the flow of interaction in general are based on this set of input tools.  On the other hand, the iPhone OS was designed from the beginning to be “OS X touch” – the internals are similar, but the UIs of the operating system and the applications for it are radically different to accommodate multitouch input – so much so that it is seemingly the only input method considered.

Additionally, if stylus-based input was deemed insufficient for the iPhone, what sense would it make given a display many times the size of that of the iPhone?  The larger display does not eliminate the problems with an on-screen keyboard, but certainly if people have adapted to typing on an iPhone display, doing so on the iPad display is going to be considered “good enough” to accept the trade-offs of implementing something like handwriting recognition.

On the day it was released, there were few positive reactions.  My initial reaction was disappointment, more or less – I wanted a Magical Mac Tablet as much as everyone else.  But then I started to remember.

I remembered the day in 2001 when Apple was known to be releasing the iPod and the famous cmdrtaco reaction.  The limitations seemed staggering:  it used FireWire, which no sane PC manufacturer (save Sony) included on their consumer PCs at the time.  And iTunes wouldn’t even be available for Windows for another 2 years.  It wasn’t the wireless-data-beaming, PDA-mashing device everyone hoped for.  The MP3 player had been on the market for years and the AA-eating Nomad had been providing gigabytes of storage for some time.  Things seemed bleak.  Yet somehow, it eventually caught on.  The Windows issue was resolved, USB was adopted, and the Dock Connector promoted a self-perpetuating accessory bonanza.  It survived Microsoft’s (epic or half-assed, whatever your view) effort with the Zune.  As of this quarter, Apple has sold 250 million iPods.  Somehow, it worked out.

Logically, then, I remembered 2007 when the iPhone was launched.  Several prominent figures believed there was “no chance” that Apple would gain significant market share in smartphones.  This time, Apple raised a high-enough profile that everyone was sure to prophet its demise over  one or many of its “missing features”:  multitasking, copy and paste, MMS, native SDK, Flash support, A2DP, support for other carriers, Outlook support, user-replaceable battery, physical keyboard, among them.  Yet thanks to the magic of software, several of these shortcomings have been addressed.  Some remain unaddressed.  In either case, people bought the damn thing, shortcomings or not.  Several of them liked it.  And several of those are exactly the same people predicting its failure.

Fraser Speirs had a great explanation about why those who know technology well are not inherently good predictors of what will happen with a technological product:

People talk about Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field, and I don’t disagree that the man has a quasi-hypnotic ability to convince. There’s another reality distortion field at work, though, and everyone that makes a living from the tech industry is within its tractor-beam. That RDF tells us that computers are awesome, they work great and only those too stupid to live can’t work them.

I don’t know if I agree that present demand is what has driven the creation of the iPad, but certainly, I agree that there is a desire for a computer that enables The Real Work instead continuing our notion that pointing and clicking equates to work getting done.

So that, then, amounts to my poorly-reasoned argument of why I think the iPad will sell well.  It has nothing to do with Apple having some sort of superior exclusive technology or killer app today – things like that evaporate quickly in this industry.  It’s that they have laid the groundwork for a new product space in the same way they did with the iPod and iPhone.  The iPod changed what we expect when we enjoy music and video.  The iPhone changed what we expect from a mobile phone.  I think that in the same way, the iPad will change what we expect from software.  And the best part about software is that the new killer app is just a click away.