More about the iPad, with a layman’s take on positioning your product and “inventing” a whole new type of computer.

This started as a reply to a comment on the other post, but it quickly got away from me and turned into something else. First, the comment:

my whole issue with the ipad is pretty much summed up by my tweet of “a better name for it would have been the Segway.”

Like the Segway, the iPad fell victim to unofficial, unverified rumor mongering and bullshit hype. The ipad has a forward facing camera for videoconferencing. The ipad has a revolutionary input mechanism. The ipad cures rabies.

At the end of the day, fanboys will say “but none of that was confirmed!” … but alas, hype is hype, whether official or unofficial. Apple is a big boy, and ultimately responsible for their own rep, for better or for worse. Same with the Segway. And note: just like the segway, there were plenty of nerds who still loved it when it finally debuted. I’m not trying to claim the iPad isn’t lovable. Only that it didn’t live up to its rumored reputation.

So this time, there wasn’t a fanboy in the house who could legitimately claim they were blown away. Everything Apple showed us was fine. It was good. It just *didn’t match the hype*.
That’s not to say the iPad won’t be a success. I’m only saying its launch goes down in history as one of Apple’s most botched. This time, an apple product will truly live or die based on it’s qualities, rather than its hype. Because in my mind, the hype failed.

Whether you like it, hate it, or are indifferent, saying that the iPad announcement was “botched” is completely ludicrous.

The main mistake is over-inflating the importance of “fanboys,” just like all the end-of-open-computing Cassandras are over-inflating the importance of hackers. You (or technically, “we”) have to come to terms with the fact that Apple’s Just Not That Into You.

The iPad is targeted squarely at a “casual” audience. Not even casual computer users, like I’d originally typed, but people who don’t even think of what they do in terms of “computing.” It’s the consumer-level appliance computer that Jobs has always wanted. It’s the original Mac that required a special tool just to open it, but you don’t have to teach people how to use the mouse. It’s the iMac that advertised only having to plug in one cord, but you don’t have to plug in anything. It’s not aimed at people who would be buying a Linux netbook or even a MacBook; it’s aimed more at people who would be buying digital picture frames or portable DVD players or Kindles.

The most telling line from the whole keynote was when Jobs said Amazon did a great job with the Kindle, and Apple was “standing on their shoulders.” It was specifically about their new bookstore, but you can extrapolate that to the whole product launch. Ebook readers existed before the Kindle. There are, and were, other models that have “better” specs and features, at least on paper. But Amazon succeeded on three counts:

  1. Backing up the device with a distribution model that already had tons of content.
  2. Marketing the product not based on features but utility.
  3. Understanding that their target audience wasn’t people shopping for ebook readers, but people who wouldn’t even have thought of getting an ebook reader.

The hard part wasn’t convincing people that their ebook reader was better than the other ebook readers — in a lot of ways, it probably was, but not in such a dramatic way that anyone would instantly rush out and buy one. The hard part was convincing people that they needed an ebook reader at all. And because they understood that, they ended up Kleenexing their product name — everybody knows what an ebook reader is now, and more often than not, they call it a “Kindle.”

And by that measure, calling Apple’s iPad announcement and the build-up to it “botched” is nonsense. It’s already done most of what it needed to do, and for free. Everybody was talking about this thing for months before its release, and Apple had officially said nothing. After the announcement, every blog had a reaction — not just the tech ones, either, but every blog. What you call “hype” I call “genius.” They only had to spend about the same marketing budget as they’d have spent on a new iPod release, but they instantly became the major player in a market, without even doing anything.

They didn’t have to live up to any hype. The hype had already done its job, which was convincing people that this was something that they needed to pay attention to. All Apple had to do was not blow it. The thing could’ve been priced out of the range of people who just want a “casual” computer, but it wasn’t. It could’ve been running OS X, convincing a lot of people that it was just another Mac or that they’d have to “learn” a new operating system, but they don’t. It could’ve been announced with just the built-in apps and come across as a glorified ebook reader or video player with no real indication of what apps for it would be like, but it comes with the App Store. They could’ve tied it to an expensive data plan, but you can get it Wi-Fi only or you can pay a monthly fee with no contract.

Compare it to the HP Slate, which is closest in terms of form factor, and which had its own mini-keynote announcement from Ballmer at CES. You could look at a side-by-side feature list and quite reasonably assume that the HP Slate is a no-brainer, and that Apple’s product launch was “botched.” But you’d be missing the point to a colossal degree. The people that Apple is trying to reach don’t care about feature lists. I’m not being condescending or patronizing with that, either — I’m one of those people. I’m a nerd with a CS degree, so I’m ostensibly supposed to care about feature lists, but I don’t unless I’m buying a “real” computer. I don’t care what kind of processor is in my DVD player, I don’t care what fuzzy-logic ever-brown crispness sensor is in my toaster. I just want them to do what they’re made to do.

What does the Kindle do? It lets you buy and read books, in grayscale on a non-backlit screen. I don’t read enough to spend $250 for that. No sale on account of limited use.

What do any of the Android tablets do? Web surfing, e-mail, date book, contact list. I’ve already got a phone that handles some of that stuff and a laptop that handles the rest. Presumably there’s an Android app store, but I haven’t heard much about it or seen any specific examples of Android apps. I’ve never seen any screenshots or video of an Android device that didn’t look like a pre-iPhone cell phone display. I keep hearing that it’s an “open” platform, and keep being reminded how great that is, but as far as I’m concerned it’s like any Linux distribution — yeah, great it’s open, but there’s nothing I really want or need to do on it since all my favorite apps are for another OS. No sale on account of vague usefulness.

What does the HP Slate do? Everything that Windows 7 does, in a thin and ultraportable form factor. Unlike Android, I know exactly what Windows is and how it works. Which browser do I use? Any one I want. Where do I get applications for it? Anywhere I want. Are those apps going to run well on a machine this small? Try it and see. What about viruses? Windows 7 comes with a free virus scanner that works well. So I have to run a virus-scanner on a handheld computer? No sale on account of a surfeit of choices.

What does the iPad do? Not everything, but a lot of things. I, like millions of other people, know exactly what iPhone OS is and how it works. Which browser do I use? Mobile Safari. Where do I get applications for it? From the App Store. Are those apps going to run well on a machine like this? They will say “designed for iPad.” What about viruses? Apple controls the App Store. Here, I’m tempted, because what over-heated tech bloggers describe as a closed system with a lack of choice, I see as something that keeps me from having to make choices I don’t care about.

That focus, combined with the “it just works” philosophy, is why Apple can branch out into consumer electronics with more success than other companies. Even companies with technically superior hardware. It’s subtle enough — or people just fail to “get” it — that a lot of people dismiss it as the “reality distortion field.” They blather that Apple “fanboys” will buy anything with the Apple logo on it and then insist that it’s the most awesome thing ever created, even when confronted with objective proof that brand X has more storage/Flash support/a camera/open source operating system/whatever. But for a lot of people, I would even say most people, it’s about getting something that does exactly what we want, no more and no less, and doing it well.

Again, all Apple had to do was get people believing that a computer in between a phone and a full-size laptop or desktop machine is a useful thing to have. And it’s not just that they didn’t “botch” that; they succeeded beyond the level anybody could’ve imagined or predicted. People who’d never have considered getting a netbook (like myself) are now debating the merits of a $500 “casual-use” portable computer, and everybody in the target market at least knows the name “iPad” and has an idea of what it does. (And again, they got much of that for free). Marketing material aside, they didn’t make a revolutionary device that absolutely no one else could make. They made a very good device that does exactly what it needs to do. And where Apple succeeds while others fail is that they didn’t stop with the hardware or even the OS: they presented the entire thing from processor to form factor to how people will actually use it and to how they can extend it.