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What Is The iPad? The Fundamental Problem

To me, the ultimate and unresolved questions are “What is the iPad?” and “What does it offer that is substantially better or different from its likely competitors?”

At dinner Tuesday night, I was discussing those points with a bunch of guys I consider to be very bright technologsts. One of the guys at the table argued the iPad isn’t meant to replace a laptop for business use, it is meant as a consumer device – a user friendly extension of yourself, I suppose. I agreed, explaining that the iPad is useless as a mobile office solution because it is limited in applications to what is web based, or what is available at the app store.

I like using Office, I really don’t like OpenOffice/GoogleDocs. I’ve tried them and found them incredibly wanting. Say what you will about Microsoft, they make a hell of an office product. (Don’t get me started on how inferior Entourage is to Outlook, though. That’s another post in itself.)

But here’s the problem, as I explained to them. The iPad isn’t really a good platform for personal use either.

What do you use a personal device for?

A personal device, especially one expected to become the standard for such devices, needs to have a lot of capability for personal media.

The iPad is clearly based on the assumption that everything is in the cloud. That’s not the case for most users, though. Most users still install applications, download mp3s, play DVDs, etc. With only 16GB on the low end device, the amount of space available for any of that media is minimal. Even at 64GB, the iPad is seriously underpowered for storage compared to a 160GB to 250GB netbook – especially at two or three times the price.

Assuming you want to get everything online, you still have the problem of actually achieving that. Since the iPad doesn’t do Flash, you’re going to have problems with a staggering number of websites, especially if they use it for video delivery. Flash is installed on the overwhelming majority of computers. There is rampant talk of HTML5 replacing it, and many big names are looking at implementations to replace Flash, but there are significant hurdles.

George Ou at Digital Society (of which I am a Director), looked at YouTube’s implementation of HTML5 and found it lacking. In addition, you have the issue of battling codecs that has made adoption by browsers inconsistent.

Assuming the iPad only allows Safari, and since Apple has significant concerns with the lack of patents on the Ogg Theora codec, it’s possible that some site video won’t work even with HTML5.

Absent a reliable streaming solution, and without enough storage space to handle stored media, the iPad falls short on the media front.

What is the iPad’s Value Proposition?

The other problem with the iPad is the fact that it is unlikely to function well as a standalone product. The lack of any type of drive prevents the direct install of applications and requires the iPad be connected to something else. So now you have to shell out the $500 to $700 for the iPad, and you still have to have the $300 netbook, or the $1,000 laptop to connect it to. The iPad was billed by Jobs as an intermediary device with the best features of a smartphone and a laptop. However, since it is far too large to hold up to your ear, and way to underpowered to replace the laptop, you have left neither of those behind, and instead spent $600 for a device that does little the other two don’t.

If you will still need a laptop/computer as well as a phone, there is a serious question as to what the iPad gives you that makes it a unique value.

When the iPod came along, most people were still listening to CDs. The value of the iPod was in a) the storage capacity to keep larger amounts of content with you at any time, b) a menu system that made accessing that content quick and easy. While other mp3 players were in the market, the iPod made digital music easily accessible. The best mp3 available offered significantly less as a value proposition.

Similarly, the iPhone put more power in the phone. The Blackberry was the smartest widely-deployed smartphone available at the time of the iPhone’s release. Yet the iPhone rose quickly to dominance because it gave you more power, more capability, and more storage at a similar price point, and in an easier to use package.

The iPad Has None Of That

A few years ago I helped organize an event at which Marc Andreessen spoke. He had requested a white board for an audience participation event. With almost 800 people in the room, that just wasn’t reasonable. So I arranged with a Dell sales rep the use of their first tablet. We connected it to a projector, and turned Andreessen loose.

Midway through his remarks, he started talking about convergence, and the tendency to take things that work perfectly well on their own, and jam them together. He commented that his first cellphone was a brick – big, bulky, heavy. But he had just gotten to a very small, very lightweight phone, and now here come smartphones to make us carry the brick again.

Then he held up the tablet and said, “A paper tablet is cheap, you can get it wet, you can use it in broad daylight… this thing has none of that!”

And that’s the problem with the iPad. It’s not robust enough to be either a business device or a consumer device. It relies on Apple’s closed architecture, has far too little capacity, and limits your ability to consume the media you want as you choose. Further, it has far greater limitations than a netbook, but at a substantially higher price point.

A netbook has similar battery life, but also allows you to add your own software. A netbook has a larger hard drive, and doesn’t require another more expensive computer to run. A netbook costs half, but does twice, as much. Are they perfect, no. Will they get much better over time, yes. But I would still pit even the worst one against the iPad.

The iPad simply doesn’t offer any value compared to what else is on the market. Cheaper, but more powerful netbooks, or slightly more expensive, but far more capable Macbooks offer much more. Even the iPod Touch and iPhone give you most of the same functionality, but with a smaller screen at half the price. There is simply nothing that differentiates this product. And that’s the fundamental problem with the iPad.

Written by Michael Turk