In Praise of Apple's iPad (the First One)

Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

On this, the momentous debut day of Apple’s new iPad, it’s time to reflect on another tablet that hit the market two years ago and, in some respects, is just as flashy and functional as the new ballyhooed version. It’s got the same size screen, about the same 1.5 lb. weight, runs the same operating system, and the same apps. It has no camera, and its processor is a little pokier, but really, if we’re honest, it does most of what you want in a tablet—and does it well. I’m talking of course about the original iPad.

The first iPad embodies something rare in technology gadgets: a pioneering product that got it pretty much right. Think about how unusual that is, even for Apple. The first iterations of most consumer electronics, and particularly the first entries in entire new product categories, tend to be buggy affairs that are quickly made obsolete. The first iPod music player, released in October 2001, was a big, boxy thing—it seemed to take design cues from a pack of playing cards. And just a few years later, Apple’s original iPod looked positively Jurassic by the standards of its new models, like the Mini. Same with those original candy-colored iMacs in the late 1990s. If you want a contemporary example of a semifinished flagship product, look no further than Amazon’s Kindle Fire, whose software and touch screen seem to have been rushed out the door.

The fact that Apple got it so right, right at the beginning, is a testament to the perfectionism of its late founder, Steve Jobs. The original model also should, theoretically, have limited the sales of future versions. That of course hasn’t happened. The iPad2 was a hit, and people are now lining up to get their hands on the newest tablet. Such analysts as Gene Munster, at Piper Jaffray, predict that Apple will sell more than 1 million new iPads on the very first day of sales. There’s also a wait time of more than two to three weeks for those who order online.

It’s hard to find enough superlatives to explain Apple’s current run of success. With a market capitalization near $550 billion, it’s now one of the most valuable companies of all time. The way it has been able to drum up excitement around successive versions of the iPad—effectively applying a smartphone upgrade cycle to a $500 to $800 device—helps explain the phenomenal run. The new features, such as the faster processors, improved screen resolution, and backward and frontward-facing cameras, are only part of it. This is also a triumph of sharp marketing. Apple slyly packages these advances with irresistible marketing terms, like the Retina display (made with real retinas!) and rolls them out in big, flashy events that hold journalists captive. It’s as if Tim Cook and Co. were orchestrating mass hypnosis of their customers. You may be completely happy and satisfied with the iPad1 or iPad2, and then, before you know it—despite any economic sense and rational judgment—you find yourself right where Apple wants you: waiting in line.

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