Is Apple Really Committed to the iPad?

Steve Jobs

By now, you are drowning in commentary on the iPad. So, let me get to the point: Don't be fooled by the fancy hardware and "magical" talk: Apple isn't really committed to tablet computing...yet.

This can be hard to appreciate when you hold a truly gorgeous object in your hand. Hardware seems much more convincing than a piece of software or website could ever be. But, unfortunately, hardware is easy*. That is why Nokia, and the like, can churn out hundreds of handset models a year for different markets. Software, on the other hand, is very very hard. It requires a level of commitment way beyond a glossy slab. In today's culture we live with software platforms for much longer than hardware (ditching our cell phones on an annual basis). And companies are stuck with legacy software systems much longer than hardware platforms—in fact, they never seem to go away.

This paradox was brought home to me by Tim Schaaff after he took the reins on software strategy at Sony in 2005. He remarked that at Sony, "The engineers think that the device is the 'car' and software is the 'fuel' that powers it. When in fact it is the other way around: Software is the car and devices are the fuel." By the way, Tim had just come from leading the QuickTime group at none other than Apple.

So, why do I suggest that Apple is hedging its bets despite all the hype? Because their software investment in the iPad is really, really low. All they have done is update a few of their apps, principally iWork, with new graphics that they can and will roll onto OS X pretty soon (once they add touch-screens to their laptops in the coming years).

So how will you know if Apple is ready to take the plunge and commit to the iPad? It's pretty simple:

1. Apple will have to break the link between the iPhone OS and the iPad OS. You will need and expect capabilities (such as the ability to truly run multiple apps simultaneously, not just "multitask" in the background) that are more robust than what they provide on iPhones (while preserving some app compatibility between the two environments). These are not just background and engineering issues. It is a crime that you can't launch the iPad with a set of active apps on your desktop (something that Apple pioneered five years ago with desktop widgets in OSX v 10.4). Don't tell me that Steve is satisfied with the current grid of static, floating icons as the starting point for his "magical" new computing paradigm. This interaction model may be OK for a smartphone, but it is really lame on a tablet (as Android will show next year, I suspect). After all, why would you run the same OS on a device with 12 hours of battery life as you would on a device with less than 2?

2. Apple will need to convince Microsoft to port Office over to their tablet OS. This is no small challenge. In 2001, Steve romanced Bill to port Office to OS X, practically saving Apple in the process (which is sort of ironic as Apple's market cap is set to surpass Microsoft's any day now). But without the ability to make simple edits changes to an Excel or PowerPoint file the tablet will never achieve the level of adoption that Apple needs for the third leg of its holy trinity (sorry for that terrible mixed metaphor). This is not just an issue for business users: the student market will also be limited without true Office support. Even Steve is not crazy enough to think that iWork will "magically" replace Office no matter how cool the slab.

So when will Apple really commit to the iPad? The brilliance of this move is that they are getting all the hype on the cheap (unlike the iPhone which was a ground-up effort). And they will probably have a successful product on their hands either way, whether mass or niche. So Apple can afford to wait and see what happens before making a real commitment. I suspect, that is what many consumers are going to do as well.

*All right. Not all hardware is "easy." Silicon is HARD. And the iPad leverages Apple's new A4 chip technology. Developing chips is a major commitment for any company. But Apple will be leveraging their chip technology throughout their product line.

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Robert Fabricant is a leader of frog's health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog's health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world's worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.

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  • Albert Ocampo

    It is more than fair to say that the iPad is an extension of the iPhone OS--I think the iPad shows Apple's commitment to the extension of modal interfaces (as opposed to desktop/document based interfaces). Was the iPad part of some grand roadmap in Steve's mind that started with the iPhone and ends with touch screen Macs? Who knows. It's just as possible that once Apple saw the popularity of the iPhone and how much money the platform was bringing in with music, app, and accessory sales, they redoubled their efforts and came up with a new hardware platform, an ad network(!), and a bookstore. Whether that was roadmapped or serendipitous, I'd say those efforts qualify as commitment to a platform.

    So, the iPad might not be magical, but as a step towards evolving towards a different flavor of mass market computing interface, it's certainly (r)evolutionary and a clear sign that Apple believes in this type of interface. Having said all that, the iPad really isn't a laptop/workstation replacement, now is it?

  • Bob Jacobson

    NeoOffice replaces the Office Suite quite well for me. If anything, it's too capable, way beyond the Office Suite (with which it appears almost 100% interchangeable).

    I do agree that the iPad has to become other than a big-screen iPhone. Their purposes can be merged but there will never be total unity between something you carry around in your pocket and something that can faithfully reproduce a visual in a lifelike form and do so much more.

  • Andrew Anderson

    The iPads success is contingent upon Microsoft seriously?


    Your are kidding right?

    As to number 2, how about it can be done right now by just using Open Office?

    My clients have been using since it first came out and we let them in on it as well as a few other relevant tid-bits that apparently go unnoticed by other folks out there. Goo is my favorite version.

    There is also another killer application for it that I have not seen mentioned much if at all and it will be the one the vaults it over the top.

    We have a story on it coming out in a few days. Just say that I am not worried about Apple sticking with it to say the least. Nor should anyone else. The next version, plus the peripherals that come with it will change things even more.

    Andrew Anderson

  • Thom Mitchell

    The iPad is interesting, but it's an obvious extension of the iPod touch. Ergonomically its form factor isn't ideal, and as others have pointed out, it's a device designed for consumption, not production. I think the HP Slate will be the first windows based tablet to achieve consumer popularity - in part because it can be used to work and to play. Here's my blog on this very topic:

    Thom Mitchell

  • Turtle King

    Android has had tablets before the i pad. example is the eDGe. so i don't know what all the hype is about. Also if you get a tablet laptop with multi touch and windows 7 you can do all the things the i pad is missing. it is like trying to have a devise in between a microwave and an oven, or a speakers and some headphones. Who wants a smartphone laptop and one of these when the laptop is better and only trivially less portable. it does not make sense. portable computers have made themselves smaller and more usable then the i pad. Apple is just getting into a existing market and can't admit they were the not the first one there.

  • Nick Gould

    Interesting perspective, Robert. Reminded me of the difficulty MSFT had (and has) exporting Windows to mobile - although Apple's case is the reverse in the sense that they are expanding a set of mobile OS interactions into a larger hardware form factor. Both companies suffer from the curse of having an existing successful platform to lean on in lieu of pushing themselves to invent a new platform that is truly device appropriate.

    Not sure I agree with your hardware / software analogy, though. I think both are hard to do well. The iPad device seems "easy" in a world where the iPhone has already been invented - but getting to that point was anything but easy.

  • Guillermo Corea

    The iPad is a media consumption device. Why would you even think of putting Office on it to work? IMHO, it's not for working, it's for having fun - surfing, checking email, skype (once they put a camera on it), reading books/mags/newspapers, and video.

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    @Lester, thanks for the comment. Could you elaborate? Not sure how the developer updates make the iphone and ipad any more distinct.


  • Lynne d Johnson

    Another thing I just thought about, Apple's investment in iAds shows an investment in iPads. All those potential iAds can't just be for iPhones and iTouches. Granted there are problems with the iAD platform from the start, but it does have potential. The iPad will have to be further developed for Apple to realized that potential and get its ROI on acquiring Quatrro.

  • Lynn Stone

    I agree with Karim El Sheikh. This is just the First Generation. Think about how much the iPod improved in the years. I saw and tested the iPad the other day, and it's a really cool gadget. I wouldn't mind having one.

    Best, Lynn from Wedge boots

  • Lynne d

    I'm not so sure that Office hinges the development or adoption of the iPad. Sure most people don't know this, but it's become much easier to work with Office documents on Zoho, Google Docs, NeoOffice, and, yes, Pages. Even the spreadsheets on this software packages work well with Excel. Sure Keynote and PPT are much different, but Keynote makes better presentations anyway.

    I do agree though, I'm not certain how much Apple is committed to the iPad for other reasons you stated. It will depend on how people use it and how popular the device becomes. That's what happened with the iPhone and the Apple TV, both at different sides of the equation. If the iPad really takes off, Apple will have no other choice but to invest time and money into it.

  • Karim El Sheikh

    My thoughts are limited when it comes to the iPad since it's First Generation. I think usability is gonna play a huge role in the iPads future just like the iPhone was tested. The iPhone success came from the third party software not so much from the hardware. We'll see what all the devs come up with as time goes on.

  • Lester Jones

    So are you going to revise this silly article not that iphone4 OS is out? They dont need to separate the 2 OS's because developers are going to implement what they want when they want too depending on the device.

  • George Kyaw Naing

    "In today's culture we live with software platforms for much longer than hardware ... "
    Very good point.

    "Software is the car and devices are the fuel"
    Very good analogy.

    "Because their software investment in the iPad is really, really low. All they have done is update a few of their apps, principally iWork, "
    Very very good way of doing business.
    Very very good example of software reuse. Bravo Apple!!!

    "But Apple will be leveraging their chip technology throughout their product line."
    Again very good resue idea.

    I don't believe Applec will commit to iPad or any product. Thye will milk it as far as it gees and then another product and another. That's the way of movie biz, something Jobs knows very well.