Is the iPad a big iPod or is it the new Newton?

Apple's ultra thin iPad

The first thing I've got to say is the title of this post was supplied in a tweet from Alan Patrick (@freecloud), but it perfectly encapsulates the controversy going on in the geek world around the new Apple tablet device announced on Wednesday.  Is it going to be as successful and "game changing" like the iPod and iTunes, or a flawed failure like the Apple Newton?  I believe it will be very successful as an e-book reader, for news consumption and Internet access, but also in bringing a whole new audience of technologically challenged people for whom a laptop or a netbook are just too complicated to own and carry around.  

It was fascinating to hear how Steve Jobs was positioning both Apple as a manufacturer of mobile devices larger than Sony, Samsung and Nokia in that context, and then the iPad as a new category of product in opposition to the netbook.  It's well worth listening to the keynote, and watching the slick demonstrations.  For me iPad follows two important paths.  The first is simple user experience and the second is Darwinian divergence in product categories.  

On the first path, the iPad uses the iPhone operating system with a gorgeous looking 9.7 inch multi-touch screen, 16-64GB of storage, Wi-Fi, 3G, Bluetooth, the standard iPod/iPhone 30 pin connector and not much else - go here for more explanation and tech details.  It's a device very much oriented towards consuming content from the web, your photos, video and e-books.  I called up David Jennings who wrote the excellent Net, Blogs and Rock and Roll to ask him about the significance of the iPod when it first came out, and what he thought of the iPad.  He was quick to point out that the ergonomics of the iPod and iPad are different - you can walk down the street listening to music, but you aren't going to be walking round much with your iPad.  However, we both reminisced about the point just over a decade ago when  portable mini disk players and the early MP3 players started.   There were plenty of devices from Sony, RIO and Creative, and they just started to get really useful when the capacity jumped in to Gigabytes and you could take a huge chunk of your song collection with you rather than having to make painful choices for each trip.  I remember buying Creative MP3 players for my nephews, but not thinking of one for myself because they seemed just too clunky and full of features.  Just at that time Apple comes out with the iPod and simplifies the player's operating system to just the few things that are useful, and creates iTunes which was significantly easier to plug in to and use than the media players used by the rest of the market.  So it was combination of elegant design, simple user interface and timing on capacity (the first iPods had 5Gb) which helped iPod define the category and then take off to get the enormous market share they now have.  I jumped in at the third generation and have had an iPod strapped to my belt ever since.  David thinks he'll get seduced in to an iPad, but probably not until the second iteration.  

When I look at the simplicity of the book interface on the colour multi-touch screen, combined with  what they are doing with the iBooks store and adopting the EPUB standard, I'm convinced this will be the product  that takes the e-book/reader concept mainstream.  The simplicity of the limited set of functionality will appeal to the technologically challenged who think about  using a netbook or a laptop to consume the Internet on something much bigger than their mobile phone, but just don't want the hassle and learning curve of getting to grips with a PC or a Mac.  My technophobe wife is already interested, so I think there is going to be a broad appeal amongst that new techno challenged demographic who want to mostly consume with a little creation, and don't need all the power of a PC.

There are plenty of people out there who have written about the missing features that they reckon will come in the second and third generation iPads when the first one fails.  Joanne Jacobs tweeted to me yesterday what she wanted as extras:

I understand where Joanne and the others are coming from but they're missing the point.  I can see that something like EU legislation for mobile devices might eventually force Apple to add micro-USB for charging, and I'm sure the Apple/Adobe politics of Flash support will get sorted out at some point, but all the extras they are after would just turn  the iPad in to a netbook.  Here is were we come on to the second path.  I firmly believe in divergence rather than convergence.  Convergence doesn't happen in nature, and it rarely works in product categories.  I carry a phone (Blackberry) that is also a  great email device, which records, takes photos, video and plays music too.  But I also have an iPod, a Canon digital camera and an Olympus digital recorder with me most of the time.  I don't have a Flip Camera for video yet, but I've been thinking about it.  Specialization in products works.   Trying to do too much and being well ahead of its time was what put paid to the Newton.  I've got a Swiss Army knife I keep in the car, but I recognize it's more fashion item than something really useful.  This iPad, like the iPod for MP3 players, will help properly define a tablet category between netbooks and smart phones.  I don't think Apple will add things like a camera, multi-tasking or real USB connectivity.  I see the point of the keyboard dock for extending the "good enough" feature set to note taking in meetings, but like I said before - doing the rest just turns it in to a netbook.  The other ace in Apple's hole is using the iPhone operating system and the AppStore.  Do you know of many software vendors who don't have an iPhone app available now, or in their product roadmap?  I don't.  Maybe it's fashion, and it doesn't quite make sense that iPhone is always first on the list for developers when you see that iPhone's market share is below  Blackberry, and well below Nokia Symbian based smart phones.   But that's the reality - having an iPhone App in your product portfolio is hot.  Apple start the iPad ball rolling with 140,000 applications that work on this thing, with a queue of vendors joining in, and then a scramble while the current crop adapt their applications to make use of the extra screen real estate.  It's obviously going to be a big success.

It will be fascinating to see where we are in 6 months and a year, but Anne K Petterøe  (@yojibee) showed me this link from around the time of the iPod launch.  Plenty of negative comments from the geeks, just like this time around with the iPad - listen to Santayana, because you need to learn from the past.  I firmly believe iPad will be a success exactly because, not in spite, of its limitations.