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The Innovative iPad?




I'm in a bit of a moral dilemma. I'm not an Apple fanboi. I've outgrown my habit of buying tech for the sake of tech and I've been studiously staying just short of the bleeding edge for the past few years. The problem is that I'm really excited about the iPad and I desperately want one.

Let me back up a little bit before getting too deeply into this.

Last year, I finally succumbed to the iPhone. When it was released, I hated it. It was typical Apple. Slick, shiny, sexy and hideously proprietary. As much as I hated the cumbersome half-assed attempt at a mobile OS from Microsoft, I had gone down that path 10 years ago and I was riding it into the abyss. I had finally arrived at a decent compromise with a wonderful HTC device. It actually made Windows Mobile usable and allowed me to write code, customize interfaces, tweak the registry, poke around in memory, etc.

Then my world changed when my wife killed her phone.

My wife is a brilliant woman. She can run circles around engineers. She can leap offshore developers in a single bound. She can absorb business processes faster than the people who use them every day and she's a master (mistress?) of the english language. However, put a cell phone in her hand and her IQ drops by an easy 50 points. I've tried for years to get her using a smartphone simply so that she'd manage her contacts and calendars electronically and subsequently, share them. But try as I might, I couldn't get her to use the technology. I might as well have handed the phone to the dog and tried to teach her to use it. The other "endearing quality" that my wife has is a knack for destroying or losing any device that she doesn't like. I'm sure that if she ever gets tired of me, I'll be found dead, stuffed into the crack of the seat in the back of a taxi.

Anyways, my wife was on her 30th phone (ok, maybe 25th....all I know for sure is that when I place a call to AT&T customer service, they generally can guess why I'm calling). The latest victim was a waterlogged Motorola that was sheepishly turned over to me to "fix". Needless to say, this resulted in a shopping trip for a new phone. Just on a whim, I took her into an Apple store to look at an iPhone 3GS. I really didn't expect her to like it, but I was curious how she'd react to the big "brick" of a phone. A part of me was hoping that it would make her appreciate the phones that she'd sacrificed to the Gods of Telecom. Imagine my surprise when she actually liked it. "I get this! This is the first phone that I've been able to navigate without a manual. I want one"

To make a long story short, we ended up getting her an iPhone. I reluctantly made the switch so that I could act as her Tech Support until the chosen victim died in some new creative way. Surprisingly, the iPhone is still alive, my wife now loves it and I've actually come over to the dark side. I even bought my son an iPod touch for Christmas.

I actually love my iPhone now. It took me awhile to realize that my misgivings were because I had a preconception about what a smartphone should be and how I should use it. I just couldn't wrap my head around a device that I couldn't tailor, tweak, tune and customize. I had equated "proprietary" with "tool of the devil" instead of "moderated". It's a remarkably flexible and usable device, but it is subject to the control and policing of Apple. This isn't a bad thing, but it did take a lot for me to get used to. Even today, I miss having the ability to write my own one-off apps for the phone, even though I never finished any of the Windows Mobile apps that I started writing.

Now back to the iPad.

I'm really excited about the iPad. I know that puts me in with a questionable crowd of Apple zealots, technology sheep and people with more dollars than sense. But I really am looking forward to getting my hands on one.

The vast majority of people that were disappointed in the iPad announcement fall into a few distinct categories:

Yawn! / "It's nothing more that a big honkin' iPod/iPhone"


That's exactly what it is and that's not a bad thing. One of the major issues that I have with using my iPhone for any kind of serious web browsing or application work is the lack of screen real estate. That and the inability to connect a physical keyboard for when I'm sitting on a plane or at a desk. Many of the apps are there already, but using them on a 3.5" screen is frustrating at best.

Unfortunately, the media and user community made a lot of bad assumptions about the iPad. Speculation at the high end was that it was going to be some weird fusion of a MacBook Air and the savior of humanity. On the lower end, it was going to be a general purpose tablet-based Netbook. (which, in all fairness, it actually is. But people have been trying to turn Netbooks into Laptop PC replacements and the lines have been blurred.) The iPad is something new. It's the tablet appliance that the iPhone and iPod have been striving to become. If Apple got the timing right, it has the potential to be an extremely innovative product (more on that later)

I'd rather have a Kindle/Nook/BillyBobs-e-reader


This is akin to saying "I'd rather have a motorcycle than a car". If all you intend to do is use it as an eBook, then "yes", you should buy an <insert eBook name here>. A motorcycle will get you from point a to point b, but it's not going to seat a family of four or get your groceries home. The iPad can be used as an eBook, but that's not what it is or it's strength. It's going to bring additional functionality to eBooks, but it's not going to be the platform that you want to use to read books all day. I'd certainly use it as an eBook (though not a dedicated one) and I'd jump to a Pixel Qi or other hybrid eInk/LCD/OLED display in an iPad, but that doesn't diminish my enthusiasm for this first gen device.

Who's going to carry around a 10" MP3 Player/eBook?


See "I'd rather have a Kindle" above. Yes, you can listen to music/watch movies/read books on an iPad. You can also swat flies with a magazine. But it's not the primary motivator when you make a purchase decision. If you want just an MP3 player, buy one. If you want just an eBook, buy one. If you want an iPad, buy one and the digital media player and eBook are built in.

I can buy a laptop for the price of an iPad.


Yup. I can also buy 500 hamburgers, a collector's edition of James Bond DVDs or an electric guitar autographed by Lady GaGa. It's an irrelevant point because the iPad isn't a laptop. Only a few niche applications will end up replacing existing laptops with iPads. Instead, the iPad has the potential to address needs that have never been adequately served by laptops. I'm still on the fence about whether Apple was brilliant or stupid by not positioning the iPad with some clear use cases. Leaving it open may ultimately result in a sort of "marketing Rorschach test" where people see what they want to see in the device. But it's led to a lot of these false comparisons and a lot of people scratching their heads.

It doesn't multitask


So what. Neither do people. We perform tasks serially and switch between them. If the complaint is that you can't move data easily between apps, that's a different complaint and something that could be handled in the application or in the OS. I'll gladly give up multitasking for stability, responsiveness and a consistent user experience. The OS pieces keep running in the background and I can listen to music, receive alerts and maintain a network connection while running my apps and that's going to hit my 90% satisfaction mark. Yes, it would be nice to have multitasking for some things. But it's a relatively small subset of what I would use a device like this for. (Reminder: It's not a PC)

It's useless as a web platform because it doesn't support Flash


Many will jump on the lack of Adobe's Flash as an impediment to web-based apps and cloud based computing. What they fail to realize is that Flash isn't designed for a touch interface. Mouseover, Mousemove, Mouseout, Hovers, and many other events that are relevant in a PC environment simply don't exist in a touch or tablet paradigm. With Windows on a tablet, the touch interfaces mimic a mouse and creates a less intuitive tablet experience. With an iPod, iPhone or iPad, it's touch-centric at the core. The vast majority of Flash apps simply aren't going to work as expected in a touch environment even if Flash was available. With that said, Adobe has announced an iPhone packager in Adobe Flash Professional CS5 (Creative Studio 5) that will allow flash developers to port and package Flash applications for the iPhone. Hopefully this will encourage developers to retool for the touch interface and we'll see Flash apps that actually work the way that they should on an iPhone/iPod/iPad. I actually applaud Apple for standing it's ground on Flash. They could have allowed it and sat back and watched everything break. Instead they saw the impending problems and prevented users from shooting themselves in the foot.

I don't have a use for it.


This is the most legitimate reason for hating the iPad. (well...apart from the questionable naming.) I don't see there being a huge consumer demand for this device. Between the developers and early adopters, I'd expect somewhere around 2M units to sell. (in comparison, it's been estimated that Apple sold about 8.7M iPhones and 3.36M Macs in the last quarter alone). If this round is successful, we could see a huge uptake on the next version. It already looks like Apple may be  planning for a camera in the iPad's future, so there may be plans for a V2 once the army of apps developers have had enough time to provide some real feedback.

With that said, there are a few markets where I think that the iPad has some real potential:

Medical


If you've ever seen a doctor or nurse fumbling with a laptop while trying to attend to a patient, you'll immediately see the value of a device like the iPad. The lack of a built-in stylus (no slot or hole to put it in), the oleophobic screen surface and a form factor that's easy to wrap in a sanitary protector of some sort all combine to make a very hospital/exam room/waiting room friendly device. I shudder everytime I see my son's pediatrician fumbling with a PC on his lap, taking notes, checking history and entering prescriptions. The idea is great, but the laptop is a horribly awkward interface for any sort of "point of care" device. A well engineered and reliable tablet would be a significant improvement and could provide additional opportunities to interact with and educate patients about their conditions and proposed procedures. The current crop of medical tablets are primarily Windows-based with proprietary interfaces tacked onto them, clunkly and are significantly more expensive than a consumer tablet. An affordable, standard appliance is just what the doctor ordered.

Out in the field, imagine an EMT carrying thousands of electronic checklists in an iPad, gathering all of the information at the scene, linking wirelessly to diagnostic equipment and building up a whole first-response profile that uploaded through the truck radio to the receiving hospital. An RFID or barcode wrist/ankleband could be put onto the patient at the scene and linked to the profile and maybe even a photo taken on the spot. That info could be instantly available as the patient was received into the hospital and any medical personnel could access it in realtime just by syncing the iPad with the wristband code. Medications could be verified in realtime. Logs from diagnostic equipment could be uploaded/downloaded. Equipment could be controlled and read through WiFi or Bluetooth. All of those paper forms, clipboards and other pieces of handwritten data could go directly into a database and be automatically verified and correlated against the specific patient record. Some hospitals have bits and pieces of these solutions, but the iPad is the first really feasible device for bringing it all together. If you read the Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, it's not a big leap to using the iPad as a tool for organizing information and empowering people to use the knowledge and experience of the group to get things done.

Education


One of the biggest issues with eBooks in schools is building the infrastructure to support them. Implementing laptops leads to the inevitable support and maintenance issues associated with different versions of software, variations in platform, personalizations, unauthorized software, viruses, spam, malware. etc. The iPad is a natural fit as a commoditized platform that can serve as an eReader, testing platform, basic productivity and note management tool. It leaps ahead of a basic eReader by also allowing web access and the ability to use interactive applications. If Apple can provide the iPad at a reasonable price point and partner with someone to provide an educational server platform for managing a "collective" of these devices, the iPad could create a major revolution in educational platforms. From a support perspective, the standardized platform and the lack of true multitasking means that an app is going to run consistently across all iPads regardless of what the students have decided to load on them.

I can also see an easy win by eliminating printers and having an integrated "Print to iPad" function on the network. Instead of printing out notes, course material, emails, love notes or any other materials, you simply route the printout from your PC to your iPad and have it delivered wirelessly. You'd have the same ability to read, markup and store your printouts and you'd get the added benefit of having them indexed and searchable.

Cloud Computing


I would love to see Google partner with Apple to provide an iPad-optimized Google Apps experience. While I don't envision the iPad as being the primary content creation device for anybody, I do see it as a very valuable supplemental device for use "in the field". I'd love to have an iPod at a conference, meeting or seminar where I could use it to take notes, tweet, capture soundbites or to look up content on the fly. Having access to all of my Google Apps documents would just make that integration with my office system much more seamless. I'm not giving up my laptop any time soon, but I can see a lot of value in an iPad as a supplemental device.

I've also successfully used my iPhone with tools like Wyse Pocket Cloud to provide access to a "real" computer desktop and the associated applications. With services like Skytap providing application virtualization services in the cloud, I can see something like the iPad becoming a very viable alternative to a laptop very shortly.

Utilities/Services


When you're climbing a telephone pole, reading a meter, in a sewer, etc. you don't have the luxury of unfolding a laptop and setting it on some stable typing surface. There are a number of speciality device manufacturers in this space, but the iPad could be a real threat to them. Tablets, up until now, have been awkward to use, power hungry and bulky. An iPad with the right applications and some sort of protective skin could seriously disrupt this market. Create a standard for shells with speciality devices like thermal cameras, multimeters, oscilloscopes, digital TV decoders, line quality monitors, TDRs, etc. and you could create an entirely new market around the iPad.

Retail


Along the same lines as the utilities, the iPad could provide a mobile catalog, order pad, inventory check, product locator and cash register. The Apple Store already uses iPods and iPhones as credit card scanners and order pads. The bigger, more customer-friendly screen could open up a considerable number of opportunities for a smart retailer (and some smart developers).

In Conclusion


So, do I think that the iPad is going to be something that every soccer mom buys? No. I think that the idea is still too new and people aren't really seeing the device as anything more than a substandard laptop replacement or eReader on steroids. We need to have enough saturation with the early adopters that people start to see it as the appliance that it is. A small core needs to embrace the iPad in new ways and use it to change our assumptions instead of trying to fit it into existing molds. After all, isn't that what Innovation is really about?
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