The iPad and the Importance of Focus

Apple has introduced the iPad today, and it starts at only $499. I admit I thought Apple was going to go more in the direction of Inkling as I expressed earlier on this blog, but I suppose by releasing the iPad, Apple allowed it to happen, even if they didn’t do it all themselves. The iBooks application is most of what I had imagined as the deeper purpose behind the device, and the interface tweaks they made to email, web browsing, iTunes, iCal, and the rest of the software are really intelligent and beautiful. This gallery is worth a look.

There’s one reaction that has been repeated by countless friends that I’d like to write about and analyze more deeply. The reaction generally involves a mix of anger and dismissal of the product for multiple reasons. You’ll hear things like…

  • What’s the big deal? It’s just a big iPhone.
  • I can’t use something that doesn’t do multitasking / background processes.
  • It doesn’t support Flash? How can that be?
  • It doesn’t have a camera? It needs to have a camera! It’s useless without one.
  • My laptop is more flexible and powerful. Why do I need this?

The list is much longer than that, but you get the idea. The central theme in this school of thought is that the person wanted it to have X, and it doesn’t have X, and it must therefore be a low-quality, worthless product. These folks spend a lot of time explaining why they won’t be buying one, as if it’s interesting news. They often blame Steve’s Reality Distortion Field when others defend it as a good product.

You’ll recognize the thought pattern from the discussions they were having when the first iPhone was released. It had a low-quality camera, it didn’t have GPS, it needed to run 3rd-party applications, it needed more storage space, it was too expensive, blah, blah, blah. What these people mean to say is, “I have a checklist in my head! Design according to my checklist or your product isn’t worth praise!”

I’d like to tell you why they’re wrong, and why their checklists don’t matter. In a word: focus.

Let me introduce you to a user. We’ll call her Jane. She didn’t follow the Apple announcement today because she’s not a geek. In fact, she won’t hear about the iPad for another week or two. She has an Internet connection at home, and she just uses it with her old Windows machine. She’ll go home tonight, check her email and a couple of her favorite websites on it. She likes Facebook, too. Beyond that, she’ll use her PC to write her Christmas letter every December, or play Solitaire, but that’s really all the machine is for. Tonight, she’ll curse at it softly because it’s been slowing down a lot lately. She can’t figure out why, and she doesn’t want to pay someone to fix the problem. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t use the computer that much anyway. She has other hobbies, and other things to do, and she’s not really into technology.

Because of the kind of content on this blog, most of my readers are not Jane. But Jane is everywhere. Jane is the most common computer user in the world. And the fact is, Jane doesn’t need a computer. She needs something less than a computer. She needs something she can type on, and play a few games on. Is she going to be doing a lot of audio and video editing? No. Desktop publishing? No. Does she care that she can’t run such-and-such as a background process? No way. She needs something that can get online easily without a lot of weird configuration options and hullabaloo. She needs a device that knows how to focus. A device that knows how to be less.

But she doesn’t want to spend, like, $1000 and end up getting more than she needs. We’ve already seen she doesn’t need much. Should we give her a netbook, so she can have all the inherent complexities of Windows with a user interface originally designed for a screen twice that size and a finger-achingly miniaturized keyboard and mousing surface and a million options in a nested-folder file system? Should we?!

You hate Jane, don’t you. Just say it. Go ahead, give her that netbook and slap her in the face. You jerk.

Jane needs the iPad. Jane would fall in love with the iPad. You may not be Jane, and that’s OK. I’m not Jane either. But let’s not insult Jane’s iPad. It’s focused, and it’s beautiful, and it’s good at what Jane wants to do. Maybe some day they’ll come out with an iPad that meets the checklist in your head. Until then, let’s show some respect for Jane.

The Problem with Tablets

There are lots of rumors swirling about an Apple Tablet. It’s to Apple’s credit that people get excited about (and start reviewing) a device they’ve never seen. Maybe Apple is making one, maybe not. I have no idea. But the rumors are swirling more quickly than usual, gaining details as they go. They feel pretty credible.

Still, there’s one problem with all these rumors.

Tablets are awkward. If you want to watch a movie on it, how do you prop it up? How do you hear it? If you want to send email, are you doing that on a flat surface? You wouldn’t hold it up in the air and type with your thumbs. It’s too wide and heavy, and easily droppable. If you want to listen to music on it in your car or at the gym, you can’t easily take it on the go because it’s too big to fit in your pocket or sit in your console or on the dashboard. You’d want to put it into a backpack or briefcase, at which point it’s just another laptop. (To be clear, I’m not saying the previous things won’t be possible on the device, but that they can’t be comfortable or ideal without forethought on the part of the device’s designers.)

So now we know the problem. What’s the solution? Let’s think about what we know about Apple.

First off, we know Apple isn’t the kind of company to leave the aforementioned problems to the consumer. They’ll solve the problem for you before they sell you the product, and oftentimes include the solution within the device. (Or sometimes sell extra accessories.)

Secondly, Apple never makes a device just to get something into a particular form factor or “make a play for a niche.” When they create, they have particular needs and particular uses in mind. If it’s not widely useful, they won’t make it. They don’t want to waste money and time making a device no one wants and no one can take pleasure in using. They’re far more likely to make a device that does one or two things extremely well at the expense of other functionality than they are to make a device that does a hundred or a thousand things in a mediocre, awkward way. In fact, I would say that particular tendency is at the absolute core of Apple’s mentality.

So the big question in my mind is this: what would Apple think people could enjoy doing with a 10-inch touch screen tablet? It’s not a laptop. It’s not an iPod or iPhone. It’s something else. Why does it need to exist?

I have a wild guess. Ready?

My guess is that it’ll compete with the Kindle and launch with an iTunes Book Store. You’ll be able to put all your textbooks for school on it, all your novels, periodicals, blogs, the Bible, comic books, whatever. Then, via a slick UI, they enable the user to highlight certain passages and take notes (audio, video, or text). You’ll be able to search all your books and notes via built-in Spotlight technology. Suddenly it’s got the souped-up power of a computer with the easy utility of a well-loved paperback. They could also augment it socially by making it an always-online device which you can use to collaborate with friends and have discussions about anything you’re reading.

Perhaps in the future, publishers of original text would be able to submit and sell their writing in the iTunes Store in the same way iPhone application developers do today. Suddenly bloggers and other writers can make a buck on their craft without having to cling to a huge parent organization. If you’re a good writer, you can do that for a living and you’ve got a gigantic potential audience waiting to pay a few cents here and there for your creations.

In a nutshell, the device will be “Reading Redux.” It has uses in business, education, and in the home. We all read all day. We’re all stuck in paper. That’s gotta change.

Reading Redux is compelling. A device with current functionality shoehorned into a different form factor is not compelling to you and me, and it isn’t compelling to Apple either. That’s not what we’ll see.