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Apple's iPad, a Great Leap Forward of... The Same Trends We Already Knew


By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: January 28, 2010

Yesterday, January 27, was the long-awaited announcement of Apple's tablet computer, called the iPad. The product has been rumored, and even denied. The rough images that appeared in blogs and commentaries were basically correct. There were reports last November that the product was way behind schedule, and it is conceivable that those stories were planted to get control over speculation so that Apple could maintain some better control over the product's public relations efforts.

Retail availability is 60-90 days away, depending on the features you want. Wifi is built in, but the always-on 3G connection capability is worth waiting the 90 or so days for. The lowest-end model will be $499, and the fully-loaded version with 3G and lots of memory will be $829.

In this posting, I discuss what it means for the printing and publishing industries and then review some product details.

Printers must beware, on many fronts. This product will get very hot, if not immediately, future versions will further add to the current culture of digital information anytime, anyplace, any format. We've gone from the idea of a computer at every desk (the Microsoft vision) to ?who needs a desk?? (the iPhone, and now the iPad vision). There have been many products in recent years that sported most of the capabilities of the iPhone and iPad before, but Apple always has a way of delivering products to the marketplace in a manner that others cannot grasp or duplicate. The iPad is not all that revolutionary, but the ripples from Apple's execution will be. Competitors will join the new category with products of similar features, riding Apple's coattails. HP had already announced a product called Slate at the Consumer Electronics Show. Any company that sells a netbook will probably be offering something similar to the iPad in the next 18 months (Google will also be among them, I'm sure).

The iPad and other tablets will continue the erosion of preference for printed goods that took hold in the mid-1990s. It is a culmination of hundreds of technological steps that steal the benefit of convenience, portability, and permanence away from hard copy, and toward always-on network access at constantly declining prices. That trend cannot be turned back.

Are there benefits to the print business? Yes, the print business, no for the print medium. If anyone was wondering whether or not it was worth spending the time to develop iPhone applications for their clients, they can stop wondering. The iPhone operating system is what runs the iPad. It's a proprietary system that prefers Quicktime and ignores Flash. That in itself is an opportunity for print businesses to offer wise counsel clients and manage media deployment for them.

This trend deepens the challenge for print businesses obsessed with a supposed power of print media. The weeks before the announcement, Apple was talking with various publishing giants about the iPad and porting content to it. A representative of the New York Times even appeared on stage with Steve Jobs. Apple has the heft and credibility to bully around publishers that other companies do not, especially because of the disruptive success of the iTunes store in the music industry. These publishers know that print is less of a future factor in their business, even though there is no way of precisely quantifying or timing it. They do know what has happened to their business lately, and they don't like it. What iTunes did for music and podcasting, iBookstore can do for publishing. Someone keeps planting Kryptonite in the printing business, and he looks a lot like Steve Jobs, yet the Apple platform is the embraced standard for our industry. Come to think of it, Lex Luthor and Steve Jobs have never been seen in the same place together.

Apple, and the longer-term communications revolution, has cultivated an audience to question print's relevance when there are lower cost and richer media alternatives, especially when made so convenient to access. These changes can be plainly seen, and in the case of the iPhone and the iPad, plainly held. During the introduction event, cameras were banned. Yet, I was watching on Ustream, along with 17,000 other viewers, as an attendee was streaming the event using their iPhone. Engadget was streaming the event using the laptop camera and microphone of pundit Leo Laporte. It was claimed that this had 100,000 viewers.

Focusing only on print media, and its claimed power, forces the print businesses to attempt to drive ahead using only their rear-view mirror. Communications myopia obscures the different opportunities that are emerging in the marketplace. We have to focus on the re-invention of print business, and less on the print medium. The print business must proactively broaden product offerings to include the creation and management of information formats that are optimized for delivery on these devices. The iPad introduction further emphasizes the urgent need for this. One of the reasons for the interest in iPad, and what is bound to be a parade of similar devices, is actually in our recent history.

It's deja vu all over again: color is the catalyst, again. In the 1970s, most magazines were black & white. By 1982 or so, because of the digital prepress revolution's color scanners, magazines had an invasion of color that created an expectation of color. Where color advertising, for example, could be sold in a magazine for about a 40% premium, today's color ad placements are cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms than black & white was at that time. Color is everywhere, and black & white magazines, catalogs, newspaper inserts, and even newspapers, died. This is the great leap forward that the iPad makes. The current flavor of black & white e-books are about to be rendered as old as last week's lasagne that's still in the fridge. While products like the Kindle and the Nook will have their place, it will be at a $99 price point, in my mind, as long as there are color devices, especially ones that handle video.

Textbooks, for example, especially those from freshman college classes and below through elementary levels, are loaded with color images. E-book versions that are black & white fall flat. Within about five years, it would not surprise me that some version of the iPad will become standard fare on college campuses for distribution of e-textbooks.

The current crop of e-book sellers won't sit still. There are many color technologies that can be used in a color Kindle, but they are not ready for commercialization. Many books are in black & white, but as soon as a reader encounters a book that needs color, such as a high school biology textbook, the experience turns against such devices. Some might be turned off by the size of the iPad or other e-book device: don't worry, foldable screens are in development in many labs.

So the iPad is nothing new technologically, but it's new from a marketing perspective. Apple has legitimized a category of devices, gives new credibility to the iPhone and iPod family of handheld devices and their operating system. It also makes always-on connectivity a legitimate expectation of all handheld computing devices. It is a confusing marketplace for communications, and our industry's entrepreneurs must confront it as an opportunity for new services or as a strategic threat that requires a rethinking or retrenchment of their business. No one can decide except an individual entrepreneur. Waiting for the safety of companion travelers is not an option. This environment demands action.

As I was watching the event, I was carried away by the idea of the device. I have yet to buy a Kindle (I already travel with a laptop and a netbook), but have been impressed by the satisfaction Kindle owners express. Since I deal with so many graphics-intensive documents, I felt that it was not for me. The iPad can function as a computer. If I were to use it, it would be primarily as an e-book, and as a multimedia storage device. I would use it only for quick convenience for word processing or presentations. Books alone would justify it for me, however.

One of the factors weighing against it as a computer is that you can't multitask. I feel that I would be taking a step back back into the old DOS style of computing. My Linux note-books allow me to multitask better than I can with a Windows note-book, and that would be hard to give up. This is obviously a tradeoff that Apple made, and may be part of their strategy to add this as an enhancement for new models as more competition comes to market. By holding back on features, such as adding a camera, they can keep adding something new to keep the PR buzz going in the category.

Even though it's called the iPad, implying a pad of paper, there is no handwriting recognition capability. This may actually be a subtle commentary about the nature of human communications. This was considered to be a critical capability in Microsoft's TabletPC attempts, and it never worked all that well (TabletPCs also ran very hot, making it hard to keep on one's lap while writing). One of the issues of handwriting recognition, and even voice recognition software (or is it ?voice wreck ignition soft wear??) has always been the patience of the user to keep ?training? the programs by regularly correcting the errors. As a voice recognition user, I believe the software currently sold is nothing less than incredible, but it does require patience in having it recognize jargon and product names that are unique to one's tasks. That patience is always rewarded. Why train handwriting software when handwriting is becoming less and less important in a keyboard-dominated world? That world has tools such as predictive text, found on cellphones, which makes texting manageable. It's quite interesting that Apple avoided handwriting recognition, perhaps assuming that if handwriting for note keeping is not irrelevant now, it will be soon. Dealing with its difficulties is proabably best left to another developer. A discussion of other items Apple left out of the iPad is discussed on the DVICE blog.

As I was watching the product announcement yesterday I fext anxious to buy what would have been my first Apple product. Today, I've resolved to wait for iPad 2.0 or one of its likely competitors. Apple likes to say that its content format is open, and rails against Adobe Flash. The Apple operating system is built on a free version of Unix, but is sold only on Apple products. Apple favors Quicktime, and I don't. That's fine, and that restricted distribution has obviously worked extremely well for them. Last I checked, Steve had more in his bank account than I did. For me, the iPad would be mainly an e-book and a web browser. Until then, I'll stick to my Linux adventures with the devices I have. One of them will break around the time of iPad 2.0, I'm sure, and then I'll decide.

* * *

PC World's David Coursey offers six reasons to buy an iPad, and six reasons not to.

Some Apple fans took the lack of some features in the iPad pretty hard, and posted items such as this on YouTube (warning: harsh subtitles). At the time I started writing this post at 5:00am Eastern, it had 300 views. By 10:15am, it had more than 25,000.

Fujitsu has been selling TabletPCs for quite some time and still has a large selection.

The Social Media Revolution video on YouTube is now past 1.3 million views. Have you seen it?

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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