January 28, 2010
Some Thoughts on the iPad
There's a lot of ink spread out there about the iPad, even before it was released. Rumors, constant rumors, flooded tech sites over the device's capabilities. Unverified pictures of prototypes showed up on various tech web sites. The situation was akin to drawings from the 1950's speculating on what alien life forms would look like. They all seemed to have bi-pedal characteristics, though with features that were a little out there compared to humans. So, too, the iPad. It's not that different from the rumors, but now that it's here, we can separate fact from exotic fiction. In terms of capabilities, it is about the same size as a Kindle DX, with a color, touch capable screen (1024 X 768 pixel resolution), a non-removable battery that can last 10 hours and up to 30 days in stand-by. The base model sells for $499, which is an attractive price point. More expensive models come with graduated power and 3G capacity (from the good folks at AT&T, again. There is no camera or live video recording capability and no storage other than cloud storage. The iPad does not support Flash formated web sites or video presentations. The only applications that can be installed are from the Apple App Store. As for browsers, thou shalt have no browser but Safari before Apple.
My point with the iPad is not what Apple should have included or how it could have been a better 1.0 device, but what Apple is doing to the market by introducing the iPad. One of its capabilities to to act as a book reader. The iBooks application can read single pages in portrait mode and show dual pages in landscape. It supports the EPUB format which means documents can come from a lot of different places (but, interestingly, not Amazon). Apple, in fact, announced its own book store with major publishers on hand to help with the promotion. The current thread is that Apple wants a piece (another piece?) of the educational market by making textbooks available via the iPad. That's very attractive to students who want to be trendy, and to publishers who can limit the use of a title to a single person. No lending, no copying, and no used book market to interfere with continuing sales. Such is the price for convenience, portability, and a "with-it" sensibility constantly on display.
Another point which is rumbling its way through the blogosphere is that Apple is tying content to its own properties and that of its partners. To which I respond, well, duh. The major complaint, if that is the term, about the iPod is that the only convenient way to get music onto it is to go through the iTunes Store or at least iTunes software. There is a one way path into the iPod. In theory, your library synchronizes all of your music so it doesn't need to go the other way, though their are applications out there that can harvest songs from the iPod. The fact that the iPod, and the iPad, and all of the other little i's that Apple provides lock a user into Apple applications and services is no different from similar stores from other vendors who do the same thing. What I see as somewhat problematic is the Apple branding of the web. Some services are locked out without tremendous work-arounds. Google Voice comes to mind. Apple and AT&T are now consenting to allow VoIP communication through AT&T's 3G network. The iPad is not an iPhone, so there is no core dialer function to replace or confuse customers as Apple argued to the FCC as to why Google Voice was blocked as an App for the iPhone. No point in looking inconsistent on that one. Nonetheless, Flash sites and videos are out of bounds, and competing services are locked out of the iPad though available on the broader web. Netflix is not available for streaming video because it competes with the iTunes video offerings.
This brings me to Amazon and the Kindle. Apple is counting on the iPad to be more convenient and attractive. The iPad screen is not quite as sharp as the Kindle, but it does do color, and it plays music and video which means multimedia offerings via book downloads are on the iPad and not the Kindle. For those who think that e-ink is the best medium for displaying e-books, well, Beta was better than VHS on a technical level. Sadly for Sony, VHS was cheaper. The general public was not drawn to quality when the next best thing was good enough. Will the iPad kill the Kindle and other book readers? By itself, probably not. However, with all the rumors and anticipation of an Apple product calculated to sell three to four million units this year, I have to believe that prototype Windows-based competitors already exist in the labs of Dell, Acer. HP and the like. Windows can adapt to tablet features quite easily. Bill Gates was flogging the tablet concept as far back as 2000, well before Windows XP appeared. I think that Apple will prove the market and Windows manufacturers will provide the cheaper alternatives. Possibly the larger market for multifunction tablets may put a dent in the Kindle and the like. If the publishers have learned anything from the music labels, letting one vendor become dominant means they can dictate terms as Apple did with their very popular music store. Publishers and authors may be quite happy with Amazon's new royalty deal, but an initially competitive market for e-books is what made that happen.
One other point I want to raise is the closed web. These devices, whether from Apple or another vendor have the potential to turn the web into a look but not touch entity. You can share links, as long as the link is still there. You can't use these devices to download or keep material. It comes from somewhere. It streams from somewhere. The control is not in the user but the publisher. I know a device that is between a phone and a netbook doesn't exclude true laptops or even dinosaur desktop systems which can provide local storage. But the trend to rely on these devices socializes users to look and pay for access to items that may have been free when accessed on other, unrestricted systems. I've suggested before that publishers can use these devices to enforce subscriptions to content that was once given away. That's because the nature of devices such as the iPad are natural systems to enforce DRM that can't be enforced in other circumstances. I applaud Apple for creating the iPad. I just hope that it's not the complete future of media access. [MG]