My 12 year old son Josh has been counting the days up to today, with an anticipation I haven’t seen since, … well, since last month. Every day he would run up to me or call me at work, gushing the latest rumor of what Apple’s tablet announcement would contain. “It’s gonna run two OS’s dad, and it’ll be priced at $400.” On and on he would gush, soaking up every digital tidbit he could get his hands on.
As someone who cut their teeth on the Mac Plus and was present for the announcements of such momentous products as the Outback Laptop (The first Mac laptop), the Newton MessagePad, and most recently, Apple TV, I was a bit more reserved. Not jaded, just reserved. My advice to Josh was just to be patient…see what they announce, and more importantly, see what (and when) they ship.
And now, after sitting through the streaming broadcast of the announcement, monitoring the Tweets, and listening and reading the blogosphere’s reaction, I’m sitting here on my couch trying to think through what all of this means. Was this a watershed event, living up to the iPhone and Job’s comment that this was the most important thing he’s ever done, or was it just a rollicking hype-fest?
What I find most striking is that it’s hard to find a review that’s balanced AND technical. Sure lifestyle reporters put on a happy consumer-facing demeanor as they talked about how the iPad doubles as a digital picture frame, but anyone in a position to really look under the hood of this thing seems to be easily distracted by their own agenda.
Sam Axon over at Mashable calls the iPad a disappointment, and proceeds to dismantle the iPad feature by feature, in a way that ignores context and the holistic sum of all of iPad’s parts. He creates a straw man that focuses on individual features, which he then compares to one of the iPad’s competitors, whom he argues does it better. It felt like the car commercials where Hyundai compares itself to BMW on an obscure singular statistic they found in their favor and imply dominance at a cheaper price.
Ars Technica ran a story on how Apple is a closed system that “forces” people to use only their software and assets, calling it “the golden calf of DRM”. Macworld ran the obligatory speeds & feeds articles, as well as their Five iPad Disappointments and iPad’s Pitfalls for the Enterprise. Heck, one commenter at Engadget quipped, “This thing sucks. Anyone who buys it is a moron,” I could go on and on with the bashing, but you get the idea.
On the other side, there’s no end to the fanboy gushing from sites such as Cult of Mac, Mac Central, and others, who seem more focused on fighting back against their open system, PC adversaries than taking a good close look at the product.
To their credit, The New York Times, The New Media Journal, and Walt Mossberg seemed to get it right, presenting balanced and thoughtful insights on what limited data we have so far. Kudos also go out to the team at MacBreak Weekly, who did an impressive job at laying out the new features and providing a balanced perspective.
So What Do I Tell Josh? He called me at work at least three times today, and met me at the door, asking “what do YOU think Dad? Is it a game-changer?” Here’s what I think right now:
It’s All About Distribution
During the announcement, Steve Jobs made a point of talking about the multiple Billions of songs, apps, and other media morsels Apple had sold and distributed in the past few years. His very next slide showed how many publishers were on-board and how amazing iBook distribution would be. I heard several comments today that the iPad is a truly new content publishing platform that publishers will embrace because new revenue streams in publishing come along like once every decade. To that end, the ultimate success of this unit will be how ubiquitous the software and available media turn out to be. Can I read anything on it… even art books and my geeky magazines?” If the answer turns out to be ‘yes’, and if developers embrace it with anywhere near the passion of iPhone app developers, this will change our lives.
Distribution Impacts the Hardware as Well
The flipside of the equation is that Apple needs to put enough devices into the hands of users to build a base that developers will want to sell to. Thus, price point is critical. This means that all the pundits moaning about the lack of things like a wide aspect ratio screen, 1080p HD, and a camera, miss the point that the $499 price tag means that zillions of people will buy one. A large installed base will speed the development of all of these missing features, as well as others we haven’t even thought of yet.
To illustrate the point, I earlier alluded to being at Macworld Boston when Apple announced the Newton, their first hand-held device. There was lots of anticipation leading up to the event, and Apple rented out all of Symphony Hall just to house the Newton product demos and such (This was in addition to the Prudential Center and Bayside Expo halls for the rest of Macworld). I was sitting in the back of one of the shuttle buses heading to Bayside, and the bus was full of people chatting amongst themselves. A guy in the front of the bus raised a box up over his head…a box containing one of the few Newton units you could actually buy at the show. The entire bus literally EXPLODED with cheers and applause. I was amazed and convinced this was going to be the next big thing.
Of course, it wasn’t meant to be, and my Newton is in a box downstairs, a victim of price-point and lack of software. But still, it represented the best effort of what was possible at the time, embodying for at least a short time, the hopes and dreams of our digital future.
One last comment on the hardware is that the people who have gone hands on with the device report that it’s well built and very tight…fast, and supple. They said that it really felt like you were turning the pages of a book. That’s important cuz Jobs is not simply making another computer, he’s making a next gen print publishing platform, and he had to get THAT aspect of it right. It brought to mind something Nicholas Negroponte said in his book Being Digital. Speaking of his Virtual Reality studies at the MIT Media Lab, he said that a successful VR experience was not about photo realistic models and rendering…rather, a simple stick figure that really felt like it was a part of you was what ruled the day. Apple has created much more than a simple stick figure, but you get my point that they seem to have struck a balance between functionality and price, while nurturing the content publishing aspect which is where their real success will lie.
So my answer to Josh is that we need to wait and see. I mean, for all the spouting off, no one has spent any time with this thing. We don’t even know what the most annoying issues will be yet. And, we also don’t know the most delightful and gratifying ones. It makes me smile just to think about it.
When it comes down to it, the Giordans are an Apple family, and we’ll end up getting a few units cuz that’s just what we do. And if they all end up in a box in 10 years, I’ll have no regrets, and I’ll probably send a “Hyperfire G7mail” to Josh, reminding him not to loose his hope and enthusiam, while encouraging that it’s better to have loved and lost…