Steve Jobs surprised me today. Although the specifications of the iPad were pretty much what I expected, the device differs in subtle but critical ways from what I and just about everyone else thought it would be. But Apple, as always, has refused to let its plans be shaped by either its fans or its critics and the result is something different and unexpected.
The general assumption in the runup to the announcement was that the iPad would be a mobile device, bigger than the iPhone or iPad Touch, but still highly mobile. Thus, the obsessive and, as it turned out, mostly irrelevant, speculation about who the mobile carrier would be. Instead, the iPad is really a portable device, by which I mean that it is very easy to carry around, but unlikely to be used while actually in motion.
There is plentiful evidence that this is how Apple views the iPad. One question that I has focused on was what rabbit Apple would pull out of the hat to enable data input on a mid-sized mobile device. The biggest surprise for me is that they didn’t really try. The on-screen keyboard is only usable if you put the iPad on a flat surface or at least your lap. There’s a microphone, but no provision for voice control. But there is an optional $70 keyboard dock using the same mechanical design as the iMac keyboard.
It’s hard to say how necessary that external keyboard may be, I have learned that it takes a couple of weeks to assess an onscreen keyboard because each one comes with a fairly steep learning curve all its own. I was able to spend only five or ten minutes typing on the iPad. It’s very different from the iPhone in design, not just size. When you type on the iPhone, the letter you are pressing pops up at the text entry point. On the iPad, the key you are pressing dims, so you have to look at the keyboard rather than the text you are entering. It’s not worse, just different, and will take some getting used to.
Also striking was the emphasis Apple put on the iWork suite of productivity applications. Word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation programs are not mobile tools, but their availability helps the iPad fit into a market slot, one that does not currently exist, between laptops and smartphones.
Apple’s choice of wireless technologies was also telling. The iPad is primarily a Wi-Fi device, with the availability of 3G, which unlike Wi-Fi is a truly mobile service, feeling like a bit of an afterthought. It will be sold the way laptops are, not through the subsidized in exchange for a two-year carrier contract model used to sell phones. With no subsidy, the iPad can be sold unlocked. In the U.S., however, that may not be of great significance. There was no indication of a version that could be used with the CDMA network technology used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint, and if it has the same combination of radios as the iPhone, it would not work properly on T-Mobile’s 3G network. The only data plans announced were for AT&T, $15 for a hopelessly inadequate 250 MB a month, $30 for “unlimited” data service (though nearly all wireless data services turn out to have caps of some sort.)
Also telling is what Apple left off the iPad. There is no dedicated GPS receiver, so the iPad will have to rely on much less accurate network information to know its position (it will be more accurate on 3G versions.) No camera and no compass mean no augmented reality apps. The iPad would be awkward to use as a still or video camera, but I am a bit surprised that there is no provision for videoconferencing, a use that is consistent with the portability model and the focus on productivity apps.
The area that Apple had the least to say about may ultimately turn out to be the most important to iPad’s success. It looks like a great device for reading books and viewing video. But with relationships between Apple and publishers and studios still in flux, Apple has little to say. The iBook store will put Apple into competition with Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble in the ebook business, but we know next to nothing about the specifics. And for all the talk about the iPad as the future of newpapers and magazines, only a New York Times app was demoed–and it didn’t look all that different from the Time‘s existing Web site or its Adobe Air-based Times Reader for PCs.
Video is problematic for a different reason. Like the iPhone, the iPad does not support Adobe’s Flash video format. When asked about it, Apple executives say they support the new HMTL 5 video standard instead. But Flash is going to remain the video standard of the Web for some time to come (think Hulu; it’s Flash-based and you can’t get it on the iPad). The open question is whether this is the result of a feud between Apple and Adobe or because of the difficulty of running the notoriously processor-intensive Flash systems running ARM processors, which includes the iPad as well as all smartphones. We should get an answer in the fairly near future when Adobe releases the ARM-friendly Flash 10.1.
My guess it the iPad will be successful, though less spectacularly than the iPhone. But if Apple gets the remaining details right, the potential is all to the upside.