Now that we've seen the iPad in the light of day, there's a lot of chatter about what it can't do. But Apple is now a massive threat to anything not a PC or smartphone. Here's why:
Generally speaking, the iPad's goal is not to replace your netbook, assuming you own and love one. It's not about replacing your Kindle either, assuming you cashed in for that as well. We have reviewed plenty of both, and know there's plenty to like. If you derive pleasure out of using either, then Apple might have a hard time convincing you to switch to the iPad. But for the millions of people who aren't on either bandwagon, yet have the money and interest in a "third" device between the phone and the computer, the iPad will have greater appeal.
250 Million iPods Earlier...
When the first iPod came out, its goal was not to grab the customers who Creative and Archos were fighting over, with their dueling 6GB "jukeboxes." It was to grab everyone else. I remember listening to arguments about why Archos had a better device than Creative or even Apple. Lot of good that early-adopter love got them in the long run. The pocket media player market exploded, with Apple eating over half the pie consistently for almost a decade.
When the iPhone came out, BlackBerry users were like, "No flippin' way." And guess what, those people still buy BlackBerries. (And why shouldn't they? Today's BlackBerry is still great, and hardly distinguishable from the BB of 2007.) The point is, the iPhone wasn't designed to win the hearts and minds of people who already knew their way around a smartphone. It came to convince people walking around with Samsung and LG flip phones that there was more to life. And it worked.
iPhones now account for more than half of AT&T's phone sales. You can bet that WinMo, Palm and BB combined weren't doing that kind of share pre-iPhone. Globally, the smartphone business grew from a niche thing for people in suits to being a 180-million unit per year business, says Gartner, eclipsing the entire notebook business—about 20% of which, I might add, are netbooks. The iPhone isn't the sole driver of this growth, of course, but its popularity has opened many new doors for the category. Just ask anyone in the business of developing/marketing/selling Droids or Palm Pres.
You could say, "Those were Apple's successes, what about their failures?" In the second age of Steve Jobs, there aren't a whole lot. Apple TV is the standout—quite possibly because Apple discovered, after releasing the product, that there wasn't a big enough market for it, or any of its competitors. Apple TV may be crowded out by connected Blu-ray players, home-theater PCs and HD video players, but Apple TV's niche is, to this day, almost frustratingly unique.
So how do you know if a market exists? You ask the "other" Steve, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
It's Business Time
There's a famous Ballmerism, one he's even said to me, that goes something like, "A business isn't worth entering unless the sales potential is 50 million units or more." 50 million. That's why Ballmer is happy to go into the portable media player business and the game console business, but laughs about ebook readers. Microsoft may not sell 50 million Zunes, but it's worth being a contender.
You can bet Apple thinks this way. You can easily argue that, despite its sheen of innovation, Apple is far more conservative than Microsoft. Apple TV is a bit of an anomaly, but with no major hardware refreshes and a few small-minded software updates, you can hardly accuse Apple of throwing good money after bad. Presumably Apple TV was a learning experience for Jobs & Co., one they're not likely to repeat.
With that in mind, let's look at these popular in between sized devices, particularly at netbooks and ebook readers.
Like Notebooks, Only Littler
Netbooks are cooking, but it's well known they're cooking because notebooks are not. A netbook was originally conceived as something miraculously small and simple, running Linux with a warm fuzzy interface that dear old gran could use to bone up on pinochle before Friday's showdown with the Rosenfelds. But instead of growing outward to this new audience (always with the grandmothers, it seems), it grew inward, cannibalizing real PC sales.
The Linux fell away, mostly because it was ill-conceived, and these simply became tiny, cheap, limited-function Windows PCs. They may have been a 40-million-unit business last year, according to DisplaySearch, but they only got cheaper, and the rest of the business was so depressed nobody was happy. (And just ask Ballmer how much he makes on those XP licenses, or even the "low-powered OS" that is Windows 7 Starter.)
Point is, nerds may love their netbooks, but the market that the netbook originally set out to reach is too far away, running farther away and screaming louder with every blog post about what chipset and graphics processor a netbook is rumored to have, or whether or not it is, indeed, a netbook at all. Clearly the audience is cheap geeks, and while that may be a good market to be in (just read Giz comments), it's definitively not Steve Jobs' market.
Easy on the Eyes
Now, about that Kindle. Best ebook reader out there. Every time we say that, we say it with a wink. We totally respect the Kindle (and I for one have hopes for Nook once it pulls itself out of the firmware mess it's in), but we think e-ink is a limited medium.