Thursday 3 June 2010

What's the point of the iPad?

Apple have sold 2 million iPads in two months (is it even meaningful to mention that this is over 30,000 a day?) and predictions are that they will top 10 million by the end of this year.

Coincidentally, I saw my first iPad advert on the TV last night and was also dragged into a debate about the relative merits of the iPad on the train into London this morning.  Unusually for me, given my dogged (I would say pragmatic) refusal to fall in line with the Apple hype-factory following, I was taking a pro-iPad stance...

This brought to mind some conversations and thoughts that I have had previously about the iPad.  Basically, the question that has been on my mind for a while has been what, exactly, is the point of the iPad?  Once you get beyond the social-media hype that Apple consistently manage to stir up around their product launches, who is going to use the iPad?  And why?

Apple never fail to disappoint when it comes to whipping up a maelstrom of media frenzy in the months preceding a launch; with rumour, leaks and press exclusives satiating the demand of the Apple-adoring public.  Indeed, the irony of Steve Jobs' recent comment about Bloggers was not lost on me for one...  And so it happened with the iPad - months of speculation about the name, let-alone the features and functionality of the device, generated an amount of interest previously unheard of.

The demand for a tablet device was born.

But irrespective of Apple's success at creating demand, my question is still unanswered.  Just what is the point of the iPad?

Well, I can tell you for one that it doesn't replace the iPhone (or any mobile device for that matter) - it's just too big for that.  Apple may extol the virtues of it being a portable device but, unless you're going to put it in a bag, you're not going to carry it around too far.  Additionally, without voice capabilities (although the more expensive versions will have 3G for data connectivity) it won't replace many of the uses of the smartphone.  Indeed, debate rages about whether the iPad should be regarded as a mobile device - for search, Google do regard it as such so that may be the trump card in that debate, but in general (digital) terms I think it should probably not be.

And so on the other side of the spectrum in terms of the market, sits the Netbook and beyond that, the Laptop and PC/Mac.  There is a good argument that these guys will be the main casualty to the iPad.  What would you be more likely to do - get out a netbook or a tablet to have a quick browse when you're sat at home.  I certainly know what I would prefer to do.

There's no denying that Apple make really nice devices and that in terms of user experience they have few rivals, but the iPad will never replace their more powerful cousins - you won't be able to check your email, browse the internet and work on a document on the iPad.  So let me try and answer my own question:

The iPad has created, or at the very least brought to the mainstream, a new genre of technology.

The iPad is not about doing things like smartphones and 'standard' computers (by that I mean netbooks, laptops and PC/Macs).  You typically use these devices as a means-to-an-end; to meet an objective; to create something; or to manage multiple tasks at once.  They are tools.

I don't see the iPad as a tool.  It's a conduit, for the consumption of media.  Sure you'll use it to play games, but aimless games in the way you do on an iPhone to kill time, not like you do an a Playstation or even a PSP.  It's primary use will be for browsing the internet; reading books and magazines; and watching video.  So the real casualty is likely to be the more 'traditional' tools - books, magazines and TV, this is what the iPad replaces as it creates a new paradigm in the use of technology.

And you can rest assured that there will be a raft of similar (albeit less useable) devices over the coming months.  I would be certain that the smooth-and-sleek tablet band wagon will be jumped on by a number of manufacturers that can produce the hardware cheaper, bundle it with Android, or similar open-source operating system - meaning that the tablet is not restricted to those with cash to burn as the iPhone was for so long.  In fact, it's already happening.

So I'm drawn back to my original question: What's the point of the iPad?  My answer?

The point is progress.  It's about people doing the same things but in a new way.  And whether you like it or not, you certainly can't stop it...


  1. Another gadget... just what we needed in the market of fickle, absent-minded, entertainment-focused users that suffer from short attention span. Having said that, Apple is great at creating a market/demand for its products, finding ever more devices/outlets to market its software/apps, etc.

    Being a believer that people should pick up a book (the old-fashioned, i.e. printed one), I have to admit it's better for people to read and get to information in a progressive and new way than not be educated in some way, shape or form.

    The point of the iPad, I guess, is money... but then again, I'm sure that's what Nokia, Sony E. and others are aiming for...

  2. I think it has wow factor that justifies the hype, but I don't think it is any more useful than a netbook at half the price. Although I disagree that people won't use it for e-mail, but it will be "social" rather than work e-mail.

    Plus, one of the best features of a netbook is that it folds up. If I were Asus or whoever, I would make a big deal out of this. :)

  3. @Anonymous - Surely reading a book is about entertainment. There is certainly an argument that devices such as tablets and eBook readers will result in an increase in reading, particularly amongst the younger and more technologically aware youth. I guess we need to acknowledge that people now grow up in a very different world to that which we did, even 15 years ago, say. Of course it is about money but a business such as Apple does it by creating demand for products and in the case of the iPad, by making people realise that the market for the product exists. Watch out for the copy-cats!

    @DrDonzo - The form-factor of a netbook makes it more portable, yes, but I think it mainly competes with laptops rather than the iPad - which is where the difference in size/weight with the same (similar) functionality are a differentiator.