When netbooks took the computing world by storm two years ago, they created a new category: The cheap, small, lightweight, just-the-basics laptop.
It was an overnight success story, with geeks and other gadget lovers buying these devices up as quickly as manufacturers could build them. Within a year of the original Asus Eee PC going on sale in North America, it was joined by models from almost every manufacturer with one notable exception: Apple.
Steve Jobs was famously quoted as saying that, “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk”.
Perhaps what he really meant was “we don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that we can make a decent profit on.”
Jobs was likely taking note of the unexpected side-effect of the netbook craze. What had been initially intended as a simple, internet-connected appliance for basic email and web surfing, running on a zero-cost install of Linux, netbooks have evolved into mini laptops running Windows XP or the newer Windows 7 Starter Edition – both of which add incremental costs for manufacturers. The group of users that netbooks had been designed to woo were those who had no need for a fully-fledged PC and wanted to accomplish some very basic tasks as quickly and easily as possible. Instead, they appear to have attracted traditional laptop buyers who have been pulled in by the super low pricepoints and small form factor.
So it was widely expected that last week’s announcement would be Apple’s answer to the netbook: a ground-breaking device that would (depending on who you listened to) do a myriad of tasks far better than any netbook while ushering in a new age of tablet-based computing. From some of the hype, you’d have thought Apple was getting set to announce the end of war, poverty and hunger, not a new gadget.
Instead, they launched the iPad.
Journalists who attended the event in California seemed to be quite taken with the new device despite many acknowledged shortcomings. But out on the blogs, message boards, chat rooms and social sites, the critics pounced. Yes, it’s pretty, they acknowledged. But the litany of flaws including a lack of support for Flash, no built-in camera, no multi-tasking, an OS better suited to smartphones than computers, a lousy name (yes people are very vocal about this), no USB ports, no memory card slots, etc. seemed at points to be endless. How could Apple have so seriously misjudged the audience for this new product?
The trouble is, they didn’t communicate who the iPad was aimed at, either before, during or after the launch.
Perhaps Jobs felt he had given enough away when he said “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk”.
Perhaps industry watchers thought that this meant that Apple’s forthcoming product would be an expensive tablet computer that presumably was not a piece of junk. That might explain why there were so many rumours about a $1,000 price point.
For these reasons or perhaps just because Apple followers believe with a cult-like devotion in their favourite company’s ability to redefine the computing experience as they did in 1984 with the launch of the original Macintosh, most people didn’t realize that Apple wanted to target the original netbook audience (those who had no need for a fully-fledged PC and wanted to accomplish some very basic tasks as quickly and easily as possible), and not their existing user base of MacBook and iMac customers.
If we filtered out all of the negative comments written by geeks, gadget-gurus, Apple fanatics and even most of the tech journalists, we might just find the set of individuals the iPad was conceived for. Let’s take another look at the device from the point of view of someone who:
- Isn’t in love with their computer because frankly it’s just too complicated for what they really want to do, and
- Doesn’t own an iPhone (or any smartphone for that matter) or an iPod Touch.
If you’re a 30 or 40-something, I know what you’re thinking: “My parents.”
How many of us tech-savvy ‘kids’ are called upon by their aging parents to provide emergency tech-support when an email attachment won’t open? Or when “the internet isn’t working”?
The hard truth that so many of us who grew up digital have tried to ignore is that computers are complicated. They are not user-friendly. Not even Macs. Someone once claimed that if cars possessed the same attributes as PCs, no one would ever be comfortable getting behind the wheel who wasn’t a certified mechanic. There is a group of users out there (and I’m willing it bet it’s sizable) who are eager to enjoy the benefits of internet-connected PCs (digital photos, movies, music, email, ebooks, web-browsing) but who find the prospect of using a computer daunting, frustrating, time-consuming or just not worth the trouble. Still others use a computer, but do so reluctantly or with anxiety, and find themselves wishing for an easier way to do things.
This is the group at which the iPad is aimed squarely, even though Steve Jobs never once said it. And he never will. Instead, he will woo them with phrases like “using the iPad is much more intimate than a laptop” as he sits comfortably in an easy chair.
For these people, the iPad fills a huge void. A void that netbooks tried to fill, and may have been successful at filling if they had stayed true to their original vision.
And that’s why the iPad’s keyboardless touchscreen interface is such a smart move on Apple’s part. In courting a group of users who prize simplicity and ease of use above power, above speed, above almost anything that regular PCs offer, the dead-easy UI of the iPhone/iPod Touch OS is a master stroke.
While making a touch UI for Apple’s OS X might have been what enthusiasts were hoping for (and there’s nothing stopping Apple from doing this on a future device), the I-can’t-open-my-attachment crowd couldn’t care less. They likely aren’t going to be too bothered by the inability to multi-task (they probably work consecutively rather than simultaneously on their existing PCs anyway). The iPad promises to keep things simple. And easy. And that’s exactly what they want.
So was the omission of a webcam a mistake? Yes, I think it was. The iPad is going to be a communication tool for a lot of people and having a webcam would have made it a more powerful one. Should it have come with a slot for camera memory cards? Probably. But my mother has had a digital camera, a laptop with a card reader and a digital photo frame for over a year now and she has NEVER transferred a single photo to either device. Sad? Yes. But you can bet Apple understands my mother from a technology point of view better than you or I.
If you’re sitting at your computer or laptop or iPhone right now reading this, and if you’ve got a few apps open in the background while you’re listening to MP3s or streaming an internet radio station, and if you were one of the people who read about the iPad and said to yourself “Holy cow, Apple really blew it this time. So much for the iPad, I’m never buying one of those things”, I’ve got news for you: You aren’t the target market for the iPad.
In the coming months, especially as Apple switches their advertising machine to full power, take careful note at how (and to whom) they are pitching the iPad. Though they will obviously try to make it as sexy and appealing as they can to the widest possible audience, the one message that will resonate with the target audience is “This is not a PC. This is not a Mac. This is not an iPhone. It’s something else. It’s something you will love using.”
And they will be absolutely right.