Ten years ago today, at a press event on January 27, 2010, Apple introduced a netbook competitor called the iSlate. Its starting price was an intimidating $999. The sheer sticker shock—and lack of crucial features such as Adobe’s Flash—led to the iSlate becoming one of the company’s most ignominious flops.
Oh, fine—that only happened in the alternate universe in which pundits’ expectations about Apple’s new device panned out, rather than being hilariously inaccurate.
In our world, what Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs unveiled was a $499 tablet called the iPad, which went on sale the following April 3. The device was more an anti-netbook than a rival to the stripped-down mini-laptops that were—briefly—a hot commodity in the Windows world. And even though it ran a custom version of the software then known as iPhone OS, it was much more than a humongous-screened iPhone.
In the best possible way, Apple had built a product that defied expectations and fulfilled needs people didn’t realize they had. Though the iPad has had its ups and downs over the years, it’s been an enormous, category-defining success by any measure. Apple sold over 400 million of them by late 2018, which was when it stopped breaking out unit sales.
Back in January 2010, I was in the audience at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for Jobs’s presentation. I’ve always remembered it as among the best “Stevenotes” I ever witnessed in person. (I didn’t get to go to Jobs’s legendary iPhone launch three years earlier, and also failed to see him demo the original 1984 Mac and lay out his plan for rescuing Apple in 1997—events I could have attended but idiotically skipped.)
Like plenty of other tech writers who sat through the 2010 iPad event, I was more concerned with live-blogging the proceedings than luxuriating in them myself. So I had my eyes on my MacBook rather than the stage for much of the 90-minute event. That meant that when I recently watched the keynote on YouTube, it wasn’t a simple act of nostalgia. I was literally seeing some of it for the first time.
In case you’d like to reacquaint yourself with the keynote—or never saw it at all—here you go:
Reviewing all this in 2020, a bunch of things stood out for me, only some of which I’d appreciated when I experienced it in person a decade earlier. Such as . . .
It was a different Apple. The company seemed remarkably successful at the time, but the numbers involved were dinky by 2020 standards. The first thing Jobs reveals is that the iPod—at the time, still an entirely relevant product in Apple’s lineup—has recently sold its 250 millionth unit. (As of late 2018 the company had sold more than 2 billion iPhones.) Jobs also expresses disbelief that Apple has reached $50 billion in annual sales. (In 2019, that figure was $260 billion.)
A sizable percentage of Apple’s current omnipresence in our lives was yet to come in 2010—in part because the iPod, iPhone, and Mac didn’t add up to an ecosystem anywhere near as sweeping as what we have now.
Apple understood the importance of nailing the software experience from the get-go. These days, the company’s launches often dwell on the tech and specs of new products, from the processors it designs itself to the sensors that capture photographs. At the 2010 iPad event, Jobs crammed the hardware section into less than three minutes of the 90-minute running time. He didn’t even bother to specify that the iPad was Apple’s first device to ship with an Apple-designed CPU, the A4.
The iPad wasn’t just a fluffy and superficial entertainment machine.
The demos emphasized the iPad’s lean-back nature. The classic tech-company keynote involves executives pacing back and forth on a stage. But for much of the iPad launch, Jobs, software chief Scott Forstall, and marketing honcho Phil Schiller plopped themselves in a comfy black leather chair and did their demos as if they were spending quality time with a favorite book. That happened to be a use-case scenario that the device served better than a phone or laptop, so the sit-down presentation made a point even though Jobs didn’t play it up. (Late in the event, Schiller did, declaring “I get to sit in the chair!” to nobody in particular.)
A year later, Apple had sold almost 15 million iPads. By that point, the device already felt so familiar that the iPad 2 launch didn’t have to acclimate anyone to what made Apple’s tablet unique. Jobs stayed upright throughout, and only a couple of demos toward the end, conducted by others, involved the chair.
And yet Apple also played up productivity. Once the iPad shipped, the blogosphere was rife with debate about whether it could be used for serious content creation as well as passive consumption. I said yes, but felt outnumbered by naysayers; remarkably, that debate continues on today.
From the start, however, Apple positioned the iPad as being useful to artists and business people who wanted to create as well as consume. The developer behind an iPhone painting program called Brushes got to show the iPad version onstage, and Schiller devoted more than 12 minutes to demoing Apple’s Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—productivity apps that cost 10 bucks apiece. (In 2o13, the company began giving them away to buyers of new devices.)
Apple presumably didn’t expect to make a fortune by selling office software. But by building such apps, it conveyed a fact that was critical to the iPad’s future: It wasn’t just a fluffy and superficial entertainment machine.
iPhone app compatibility turned out to be a short-term security blanket. In January 2010, the iPhone App Store was a year and a half old and boasted a then-staggering 140,000 apps. One of Forstall’s primary contributions to the event was showing that you could run almost all of them on an iPad, either with mammoth black borders or in a slightly pixelated 2X mode. That was a kludge at best, quickly rendered largely superfluous when third-party developers brought out a profusion of real iPad apps. But for the purposes of introducing an unfamiliar platform, the backwards compatibility was a necessary reassurance.
10 hours of battery life was a big deal. I’m always iffy about gauging the reaction to an Apple event by the applause it generated, since at least some of the people wildly clapping are Apple employees. Yet the original iPad’s 10-hour battery life—announced to cheers from the audience—did feel like a feat that was key to its appeal. After all, you can’t kick back with a device if you’re carefully monitoring its battery gauge. Apple must have been pleased with the running time it achieved: It’s the only feature from the 2010 iPad that has remained constant through every subsequent model.
The problem is, netbooks aren’t better at anything!”
Netbooks made for a convenient whipping boy. When Windows netbooks became a hit starting in 2007, multiple writers helpfully explained that Apple had to make a cheap mini-MacBook of its own. By the time the iPad’s release was imminent, this conventional wisdom had morphed into an assumption that an Apple tablet would compete with netbooks. In reality, the iPad—a posh-feeling gadget with a largely new user interface and no keyboard—had little to do with netbooks, which were almost entirely about using off-the-shelf technology to hit a price point.
Rather than ignoring the comparison, however, Jobs ran with it: “The problem is, netbooks aren’t better at anything!” It turned out that the world agreed with him, and the fad for them dwindled away even as the iPad took off.
The price was one of the most dramatic reveals of all. It’s easy to forget that nobody had ever seen a tablet that much resembled the iPad, which made it tough to guess what it might cost. That’s why pundits wasted an infinite number of hours anticipating that Apple’s device would cost $1,000 or more. (That seemed plausible to me—in 2005, I’d bought a Toshiba Tablet PC for $1,597.)
The $499 price tag, which few Apple seers had even raised as a possibility, was so low that Jobs held off revealing it until the end of its event. The company also referenced the cost in its amusingly hype-y (though not altogether inaccurate) tagline, “a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.”
Today, the question “How much does an iPad cost?” has many answers, ranging from $329 (the price for the current base model) to $1,699 (for a 12.9″ iPad Pro decked out with cellular connectivity and 1TB of storage, or 62.5 times the original version’s starting capacity of 16GB). But in 2010, associating the new device with one price point that was far less than people had expected was atypical for Apple—but highly effective.
Steve Jobs is irreplaceable. That’s a truism, not a revelation. Still, rewatching the iPad launch was a powerful reminder of how unmatched he was as an explainer of new products. For all his talk of Apple’s tablet being “magical,” “revolutionary,” and “unbelievable,” the meat of his presentation was a clear, convincing explanation of what it was and why you’d want one. And as much as the iPad has evolved in the past 10 years, it remains the device that Jobs introduced, as if he understood where it might go in the years to come. By contrast, the 2014 event where Tim Cook and company unveiled the Apple Watch—the biggest all-new Apple device since the iPad—doesn’t hold up nearly as well.
Between the January 27, 2010 event and his death on October 5, 2011, Jobs presided over another five keynotes. None was anywhere near as significant as the iPad’s debut. (The one that would have come closest, the iPhone 4 introduction, had much of the suspense drained out of it when a preproduction phone went missing in a Redwood City beer garden.) As Jobs’s final epoch-shifting product launch, the iPad introduction was both the start of something big and the end of an era—supremely effective marketing then, and even more meaningful now.