Where are we now?
It's not a bigger iPod touch. There are three potential killer app angles:
- A portable games console. It's like a portable PSP3 or Nintendo or whatever, with a better interface. The games market has a narrow demographic, but it has obvious appeal as a games platform. Developers can see the benefits right away. Expect an explosion of games, and it wouldn't be completely surprising to see the iPad find a niche as a leeeeet games machine.
- The bookshelf/media box. This is more problematic, because it assumes that the iBook project is going to be as successful as iTunes has been.
Problem - publishing is a completely different market, with a completely different audience profile. It's much smaller - people are more likely to buy music than books. It's not as developed - eBooks still make up less than 10% of a typical title's sales. And it has an exotic veneer of middle class pretension that's entirely absent from music, and which limits the appeal. There's a lot of passion in publishing, but it's a passionate interest among a relatively small number of potential purchasers.
I'd give this a 50:50 chance of succeeding. The technology isn't bad, and the marketing model may work. But so far eBooks have been strongest for trivial content for undemanding readers. Erotic fiction is particularly popular. And it's mostly created by amateur and semi-pro writers.
The new-publishing vs old-publishing theme needs a separate diary, but I don't - so far - see evidence that Apple understands that books are not just units, like mp3 tracks are. They're not a casual purchase, especially not at $9.99 and above, they're politically and culturally sensitive, so you can't censor them without attracting very bad PR. So I don't think many people are going to buy an iPad exclusively as a book machine.
The smart move would be to deal directly with authors, and let anyone sell their own titles, with minimal editorial oversight. Apple could then do the bulk thing, take a profitable cut from every sale. Authors would think there was a market. A few authors would be featured in Wired, explaining how they got very rich, while most would make nothing.
And so on. Unfortunately it's more likely that Apple will still deal with publishers as aggregators, which is going to limit what's possible.
There are also practical issues - what happens if I want to look at three or four reference books at the same time? - which apply to all eReaders.
Summary - an interesting idea, but iffy in practice.
The one exception is magazine publishing. Most magazines are a waste of paper - they get thrown out after a month - and it's easy to imagine the iPad becoming a very upmarket reader for the glossies, because it eliminates or significantly reduces the physical print budget overnight.
It doesn't look as if Apple has considered this yet. But it might if Conde Nast have a quiet word.
3. The Computer For Everyone Else
This is the perhaps the most interesting but also the most nebulous part of the proposal. iPhone OS is currently brain damaged - no multitasking makes messaging and other essentials difficult to impossible. This may change in a future update, but because of the underlying programming model, it may not be true, full, open multitasking.
The idea that you can browse and send email - netbook stylee - without all the cruft and crap accumulated by a 'proper' OS is an interesting one. Up to a point. So - grandma can get online. That's good, right?
Not if you're a developer. The iPhone has an interesting business model. It takes two to three months for most people to master the development environment from a cold start. Once you've done that, it's relatively easy to keep knocking out toy apps.
iPhone apps are simple - they usually do one thing only - with well defined edges. Many of them are slightly grown up desktop/dashboard widgets. The interface is assembled from predefined blocks that can't be customised, but which leave space for a bit of basic animation or graphic design. This simplifies development and enforces a standard look and feel.
So almost anyone who can do basic C can bolt something together quickly, get it into the store, and have a reasonable chance of selling at least a few copies. (This won't make them any money - Apple doesn't pay out less than $150 per territory - but they won't find that out until later.)
The iPhone's limitations make it a simple platform to write for. It's classic volume marketing. There are tens of millions of possible customers, so the aim is to write something simple quickly with mass appeal, and sell in volume at low cost, as an impulse purchase.
That's no longer true for the iPad. Although the technology is similar, the business model is completely different and much more traditional. Firstly, it's going to sell in much smaller numbers, so that limits the possible market. Secondly, the demographic is split into very distinct interest groups - older/non-expert, student, fanboi/geek, book reader, musician, and so on. The possible market for a non-trivial app that targets a niche is relatively tiny.
And finally, because the iPad offers more customisation, a more complex interface, and more screen space, a non-trivial app is going to take three or four times longer to develop - from six months upwards. This puts it more into the OS X app market, which is also Not Big.
This isn't to say that decent apps are impossible. But it changes the economics of development, and makes payback almost inversely proportional to originality and effort. And because apps will still be expected to sell for small change - maybe $40 at the outside - there's not a lot of room for income overhead.
I'd guess we'll see a lot of mass-interest educational/lifestyle apps - recipe books, cocktail lists, tarot card games, and such - plus a few early-bird shiny and clever apps.
But the shiny and clever apps won't sell particularly well, and developers may well find themselves making a loss on their time, which will depress the market after the first year or so. It also means non-trivial apps will have to be more expensive, which will limit the market further, without the iPhone's 'yeah, I'll pay $1 for that' mindset.
Third-party hardware will become more of a market than it is for the iPhone. Aside from plastic cases - buyers will need one - I think it's a certainty that someone somewhere is developing a clip-on camera, and almost as much of a certainty that their business will be nuked when Apple adds a camera in the Mk II model.
There's more scope for selling upmarket home automation and music control systems at a premium price than there is for micro-apps.
Media and content will be pushed aggressively. iTunes will start bigging up TV and movie content even more than it does already. The iPad makes an interesting hand-held TV, but I'm not sure how comfortable it is to watch an entire movie on one.
Convergence is inevitable. My guess is we'll see a clamshell two-screen MacBook or MBP within the next three years, possibly running iPhone OS in emulation on OS X. (This is easy to do - it's practically a solved problem.) There might be scope for a hybrid iPad 'keyboard' to be bundled with an iMac as a remote control/general useful thing. And so on.
Fully converging OS X with iPhone OS is actually quite difficult. I'll be surprised if Apple works out a way to do that without collateral damage.
It's also difficult to see how the iPad features can be rolled back into the iPhone. This seems to be a stated goal - the idea is to have a single universal platform - but some of the features rely on more screen space. It's going to be interesting to watch what happens there.
The current version of the iPad fails to change computing. The big draw at the moment is social computing - esp. real-time interactions with friends and family - and without multitasking, the iPad and iPhone can't handle them properly.
Browsing and email are fine as far they go, and you can Twitter and Facebook on the web, more or less. But you can't do that while reading a book or browsing a virtual magazine, which is a significant limitation.
Apple's mistake has been to try to enforce its top-down command-and-control policy onto the market, instead of looking more thoughtfully at what people are doing with computers now. A true killer app would allow more simultaneity and social sharing. Even on a small screen, it should be possible to do more than one thing at once.
This matters because although social computing is often trivial, it could - potentially - have significant political and economic influence. Blog-storming - near-instant mass movements across blogs and social networks - has already have some impact. Potentially, the iPad, or something like it, could be used a platform for voting influence and social discussions.
But not as it stands now.
As for how well it does - I think it will sell comfortably, but not in truck loads, and I'm not completely convinced that it's going to be the winner Apple want it to be. It's close to being that, but it needs major changes before it gets there.
My worry is that if it doesn't sell in large enough numbers, Apple may kill it or roll the tech into its other product lines, rather than pushing it further to the point where it lives up to its potential - which would be a waste, because the potential to be something unusual, if not quite magical, is certainly there.