The just-released and much hyped iPad is Apple’s second foray into hawking a tablet computer. And all the reasons Steve Jobs would like us to forget that are, in fact, good reasons to remember the Newton and the fact that it never became more than an early-adopter status toy. It, too, was greeted with hosannahs by rapturous Apple fans and a bedazzled trade press back in 1992 – but who remembers it today?
The Newton was a fascinating technology demonstration, but it sank almost without trace because nobody ever found a real use for it. It was too large to fit in a pocket and underpowered for replacing a real computer…like the iPad. And the thing that has me scratching my head, two days after the iPad announcement and knowing it has sold 300K copies in that time on the strength of Apple’s brand, is that I can’t find a real use for it either.
It can’t replace even a netbook, much less a laptop or desktop computer: can’t multitask, no USB port, limited on-board storage. It can’t replace my cellphone or a conventional PDA, because it won’t fit in a pocket. It can’t replace a dedicated e-reader – battery life too short and the display type isn’t tuned for that use, not being reflective. If it’s designed as a browser appliance, the absence of Flash support is a pretty serious hole below that waterline.
What I’m seeing is a device that competes in four or five different product categories without having a compelling story for any of them – a perpetual second-best. It makes me wonder what Steve Jobs was thinking, really. This isn’t like the iPhone, which did one thing – even if that was just being a cellphone with a nifty color display – better than anything else that came before it.
Of course, the standard rejoinder to pointing out what a new technology can’t do is that people will invent their own unforeseen uses for it. But this is where the iPad software lockdown starts to become a serious drag, because it means any software application some third party comes up with has to pass through the eye of Apple’s needle. And there’s a serious problem with that…
The approval process for iPhone apps is already notoriously slow, arbitrary, and frustrating; the process for iPad apps will probably be as problematic or worse. The iPhone can survive that, because even without 1001 apps it’s got the being-a-phone thing to fall back on. But the iPad? Not so much. The fallback position, in the case that a large ecology of apps fails to proliferate because Apple is overcontrolling, isn’t obvious.
I’m not the only one to notice the odd lack of a value proposition here. A-list blogger Ann Althouse, just two days after buying one, asks what am I doing with an iPad?
Back in the early 1990s, that’s a question a lot of early adopters found themselves asking about the Newton when the initial euphoria wore off. They never found a good answer, either.
UPDATE: Good summary of the anti-iPad case at 13 Glaring iPad Shortcomings. It’s pretty damning.