Thursday, March 11, 2010

Three reasons the iPad will succeed. Whoops, make that two.

The Apple iPad was announced January 27. After years of hype, people were generally disappointed. The trade press carried many articles like this one listing ten missing features. It can not play Flash movies, the aspect ratio is not 16:9, AT&T is the only carrier, the battery can not be changed, the operating system cannot multi-task, there is no camera or HDMI interface to a TV set, etc.

For me, the most important missing feature is a microphone with accompanying speech recognition software. I want to be able to input marginal notes, email addresses, etc. without typing on a glass keyboard.

In spite of all of this criticism, I expected the iPad to succeed for three reasons.

The original Macintosh had 128 KB of memory, only a floppy disk for storage, and a tiny, monochrome screen. Still, its operating system and simple applications for image and word processing had graphical user interfaces (GUIs). The earlier Apple Lisa and Xerox Star also had GUIs, but failed because they were too expensive. By the time the Mac was delivered, technology had improved, and they had engineered a minimal system that was just good enough to get people excited and succed in the market. The timing was right.

As technology advanced, Apple upgraded the Mac, adding memory and a hard drive, followed by a larger screen, color, etc.

The same will happen with the iPad. Features will be added as technology improves. I am confident that Apple has a multi-year plan for iPad improvements, and it has the potential to become a significant device for consuming content -- games, books, periodicals and video of all sorts.

I was optimistic for a second reason. Apple understands that the device is only one part of a system that includes the application store, content deals, and synchronization with the desktop and Internet. Apple learned this lesson with their ill-fated Newton, the first pocket computer. The Newton failed because the hardware was not powerful enough, and, more important, because it did not synchronize with desktop machines.

I am confident that Steve Jobs and his colleagues are negotiating with TV, movie, book, newspaper, and magazine publishers for content deals as I type this.

The third reason I was confident was that Apple had legions of software developers who, because they had developed iPhone applications, were ready to go on the iPad. Their iPhone applications would run with little or no modification on the iPad, and their programmers were up to speed on Apple's software development tools, their software development kit (SDK).

Apple might have learned the importance of the developer community by watching Microsoft. Microsoft wooed independent software vendors (ISVs) from day 1. Since the early days of MSDOS, they invited ISVs to conferences, provided them with excellent tools, set up a developer's organization, etc. Apple has taken this a step further with their application store -- they also provide a distribution channel at a reasonable cost. They removed the "V" from ISV. Independent developers were just developers, not vendors.

That is the good news (for the iPad). The bad news is that Apple seems to be blowing off the developer community. To use Apple's SDK, a developer has to agree to draconian terms. For example, they can only sell through Apple.

At some point, Microsoft could have afforded to ignore the ISV community -- Windows had a monopoly -- it was the only game in town.

Unfortunately for Apple, their developers have alternatives -- Google's Android, Microsoft's mobile version of Windows 7, and Palm's webOS. Google seems to be the biggest threat. They just released a new version of their SDK, which is provided to developers without restriction, and they offer prizes for outstanding applications.

I am still betting on the success of the iPad, but the odds have dropped. Apple's high handed attitude toward developers could be the chink in their armor.