Though I do not normally post these kinds of posts–actually, you might have noticed that I rarely post much of anything, which is something I’m trying to change–I can’t help but weigh in on the iPad.  I think that there are two main problems with the device as I understand it now:

  1. As a device meant to occupy the space between an app-phone and a laptop, it is more a scaled up phone than it is a scaled down computer.
  2. The fact that it looks like just a huge iPhone/iPod will make it more difficult for people to understand what, if anything, is unique about it.

First, Apple is not the originator of the idea of a device meant to bridge the gap between the smart- or app-phone and the laptop.  That honor goes to Palm and their ill-fated Foleo.  The Foleo was roundly criticized and after only a few months on the market it was pulled.  Most critics could not see the need for such a device.  But then along came the “netbook,” which has been quite successful.

But why did the Foleo fail where the netbook succeeded.  My theory is that the argument in favor of a stripped down laptop for around $400 or $500 (and some netbooks are in the $300 range) makes more sense to most people than the argument for a larger version of their smart-/app-phone.  With a netbook, in some cases for around $300 one can get most of the capabilities of a laptop, which is still kinda bulky and expensive to carry around, in a compact package that can be slipped into a briefcase or purse.  With a Foleo- or (arguably) iPad-like device, one is paying more to get roughly the same capabilities of the less capable of the two devices (i.e. phone vs. laptop), and in a package that is less portable.  And presumably, because the smart-/app-phone already fits in one’s pocket, it’s probably already in that pocket.  So, why carry another device that does the same thing only in a bigger package?  If I’ve got an iPad or a Foleo with me and I still need to do some heavier computing, I’m still going to have to have my laptop.  I can’t even “fake it” in a pinch with the Foleo- or iPad-like device.  But with a netbook, one is able to add capabilities not available on one’s phone, even the smartest phone, while avoiding the hassle of a full laptop.  And on most netbooks, in a pinch, you can do some real work if necessary.

Second, there is an argument to be made that the iPad is really doing something unique.  It is combining an e-reader, tablet, and netbook.  And though the price is a bit higher (between roughly $600 and $800), one might justify that price by pointing out that it’s actually pretty cheap considering the buyer is getting three devices in one.  But…how many people will be able to realize that they are getting three devices in one?  How many people will be able to see what is potentially unique and valuable about the iPad when it looks exactly like a huge iPhone or iPod touch?  Apple is right: There really isn’t anything out there right now that does what the iPad does, not even the iPhone or iPod, not really.  There are some (positive) differences that make a difference.  But it will be harder for people to see them because every time they look at it they will be seeing an iPhone or an iPod and wondering why they need to pay more money for something they already have…even if it’s not really something they already have.  Yes, it’s irrational.  Yes, it’s superficial.  But it could (and is) already having an impact on peoples’ perceptions of the iPad.  Apple should have at least done something to make it slightly different.  Two square buttons, on on either side, instead of one round button, perhaps?  Or, even more in line with Steve Jobs’ supposed hatred for buttons, how about no buttons at all?  They could have touted it as another breakthrough.  But no.  They made something that looks like a huge iPod.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make an almost-prediction.  In it’s current form, the iPad will not succeed to the degree that the iPod or iPhone have succeeded.  Both of those devices revolutionized their respective markets.  MP3 players have not been the same since iPod; smartphones have not been the same since the iPhone.  In fact, “app-phone” is replacing the term “smartphone” because the iPhone really is a very different thing from the older smartphones.  The iPad just doesn’t seem as revolutionary.

How to fix the situation?  Enable multitasking–i.e. allow background apps–and make other upgrades to the OS that will allow the device to function more like a laptop and less like a great big phone without the ability to call anyone.  Otherwise, I fear that Apple may have just created the “iFoleo.”