Apple's new device is lovely and loaded with potential, but it won't fly unless there's cool content to go with it
Steve Jobs chose the wrong name for Apple's (AAPL) new iPad. A better one would have been iWonder—as in, I wonder if content providers will take full advantage of it. Whether they do so will be the key factor in its success or failure.
The half-hour or so I spent playing with the iPad at its San Francisco unveiling last month was too short to evaluate it, other than to say it is fast, beautiful, and loaded with potential. The half-inch-thin iPad uses the iPhone/iPod touch operating system, meaning it runs just about all the 140,000 or so applications already written for those pocket-sized devices. Jobs has promised superb battery life: 10 hours of heavy-duty use.
Apple is currently planning to come out with six models, three of which should be available in March starting at $499 for units that cruise only on Wi-Fi. A month later, a top-of-the-line iPad connecting to AT&T's (T) 3G network will be priced at $829.
It will be interesting to see whether Jobs has showed his entire hand or is holding a little back to keep stoking interest. When the iPhone was unveiled in January 2007, there was no provision for viewing YouTube clips, but an app for that magically appeared before the first models shipped. Techies now bemoan the iPad's seeming inability to run multiple applications at one time. These moans, too, may be premature.
At about a pound and a half, the iPad is heavier than a typical e-book reader, one of its core functions. But the product is about more than that. It aims to deliver media in all its forms, from storing and viewing photos to watching high-definition movies. Its responsiveness is striking. In the photo app, I could race through hundreds of pictures in a blur; the Electronic Arts (ERTS) car-racing game Need for Speed Shift looked terrific on the 9.7-in. screen. Games may look better still once developers start writing to the capabilities of the custom chip Apple designed to power the unit.
Books in the new iBooks app seem much more book-like than on Amazon.com's (AMZN) Kindle or Barnes & Noble's (BKS) Nook. Pause while turning a page and you see both the content of the one you're on and that of the new page peeking out from underneath, just as if you were holding a physical book.
The question is how fast the media industry can adapt. Are book publishers ready to produce interactive versions that include author interviews and DVD-style extras to take advantage of the iPad's multimedia capabilities? And what about newspaper and magazine publishers? These, after all, are the geniuses who decided to give away their products for free, then expressed shock when people valued the content at exactly the price charged. Will they now recognize the life preserver Apple has thrown them and produce versions optimized for iPads and alluring to readers and advertisers?
It may turn out that Apple's decision to bring its Mac productivity suite to the iPad will be crucial. The three iWork programs—a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software—will sell for $9.99 each. With them and a Bluetooth keyboard, or perhaps Apple's new combination keyboard and dock, the iPad becomes an alternative to inexpensive netbooks running Windows software
While that might sell a fair number of iPads, it could also cannibalize sales of more profitable Mac notebooks. More important, positioning the iPad as a netbook would signal Jobs' failure to achieve one of his ambitious goals. To be "revolutionary"—the word he used to describe it—the iPad needs content just as cool as it is.
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