What we really wanted was a MacPad not an iPad


Like every other techy out there, I also have an opinion about the newly launched iPad. I'm not going to wade in the minutia of various hardware or software decisions like the wonky micro SIM and the lack of SDCards or USB ports, nor the lack of background tasks or Flash support, or the pricing etc. Instead, I want to focus on the bigger picture, and came up with a couple thoughts I wanted to share.

First, if you've read this blog before, you already know that I'm in love with the idea of tablets as the next generation of computing devices, so I was looking forward to Apple's announcement as much or more than anyone. In fact, I've been expecting a tablet from Apple for, oh, about 7 years now. No, really. I wrote this post back in 2003 - Urgh! Steve, we all want a Mac Tablet! - when Steve gave an interview categorically denying any interest in tablets (or mobile phones), and have been patiently waiting since then. Well, it took the better part of a decade, but here it is.

But is it really what we wanted?

I think there's a lot of disappointment out there that the iPad is not in fact a Mac Tablet (i.e. a "MacPad"), but is instead essentially a larger iPhone. What I mean is that rather than shrink the open, Intel-based MacBook platform down to a smaller, touch-screen focused device - Apple chose instead to enlarge the dedicated, closed platform of the iPhone. It's an interesting - and probably obvious - choice for Apple and Jobs, but one that's causing some consternation for the rest of us who were really looking forward to a much different machine.

I think all of us really wanted to see a MacPad, not an iPad.

Not a peripheral gadget, but a primary computing device that can be used by touch if desired. Something that can function on a desktop with a keyboard and mouse, and then be picked up and tossed into a bag, or to be used while sitting down on a couch or in bed with only the touch screen for the interface.

That's not to say the iPad is somehow fundamentally broken because it's not a general purpose computer. Far from it - I'd still use it if I had one in my house right now. I've been using smaller dedicated web tablets for quite a few years now starting with the Nokia Maemo devices such as the N810 and more recently the Archos 5 Android web tablet. They're great to have when you want to get away from your computer, but still consume what is an ever-increasing amount of digital content. I wouldn't use those devices as my primary computers by any stretch - even on short trips, I'd rather take along a netbook - but to browse the web, listen to music, have access to IM or read eBooks? They're a fantastic gadget for this stuff. The Apple iPad will be a larger, and in some ways, nicer version of these devices, so for many people it'll be perfect.

But again, I'm not sure this sort of limited functionality is what most of us really want in a next generation computing device - which is what tablets really are meant to be. Not only in terms of use cases - where does a 10" computer fit in, really, where does it normally live and charge, etc. - but also just based on cost. Most people don't have $500 to spend on a computer and another $500 to spend on a purposefully-limited adjunct tablet device. They're going to want to get the one device that does it all - from work, to communication, to eBooks, to entertainment.

There's something else though, besides my gut feeling of what consumers want, where my opinion is as useless as anyone else's - it's that Apple's competitors in this burgeoning category aren't as behind as they were when Apple launched the iPhone.

It's really, really hard to jump exponentially forward in technology - a 10x improvement only happens once every generation or so. Apple's already done it twice - once with the Mac GUI in the 1980s and again with the iPhone in the 2000s. To do it again so soon is asking quite a lot from any company - technology just doesn't work that way. When the iPhone was announced, Jobs said that they were at least 3 years ahead of their competitors. That turned out to be incredibly accurate - it's 2010 and we're just now seeing devices that compete in terms of usability and functionality of the iPhone launched back in 2007. It was a huge leap forward in technology in a variety of ways, and as a result has created a massive ecosystem around it, and a huge following as well.

The iPad, however, is only an incremental improvement on the iPhone's huge leap forward. It is not, by any stretch, 3 years ahead of its competitors. And in many ways - the ability to install standard software, for example - it's already behind.

The fact is that *every* single feature that was announced today in terms of the iPad's core functionality can already be done on the web tablets sitting in my house. Right now. Yes, my Archos 5 has only half the screen size (though 3/4s the resolution), but that will be changing quickly I'm sure. And it's open. And it runs Flash. And this is just from the "gadget" guys. How easy will it be for traditional laptop and "netbook" makers to slap a touch screen on their devices, get rid of their keyboards and create general purpose "netpads" that have all the functionality of the iPad and more? Quite easy. We've already seen a variety of PC-tablets announced at CES, including HP's very lustworthy "slate" computer.

In other words, Apple is wading into a market that's got a lot of players in it already. They did this before with the iPod and cleaned house, so hey it may not really mean much. But I think in this category there's a big difference. In many ways, it brings them back into direct competition with Microsoft again, who's been working on Tablet versions of their OS for years, but now also add in Nokia and Google as well. These are not inconsequential competitors.

Anyways, in summary, I think if Apple had come out with a MacPad today, they would have provided that one device we've all been waiting for, kept well ahead of the market, and been a real force to reckon with. But by incrementally improving on the iPhone platform, I think they may have consigned themselves to a niche market instead.

Seriously - the first time you go to Starbucks and see a guy sitting with his legs crossed, sipping his latte and browsing his iPad, what are you going to think? "Poseur". The iPhone had that same effect at first, until everyone realized how amazing and useful it really was - not only that but it replaced something you already had, your old cruddy mobile phone. The iPad though? Is an add-on, an extra, a not-really-needed. And thus just screams to the world, "I have more money than brains, look how cool I think I am!" That's going to be a real perception problem I think.

All that said, you know I'm going to buy one, right? Right. :-)


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