How does a half-baked computer (Apple iPad) become a roaring success?

iPad Mini

No doubt, Apple’s iPad tablet computer is a roaring success. But it is also essentially a half-baked computer. Why and how did it succeed? I’ll answer this question today and the answer will have particular relevance to another very highly popular Internet Business strategy question: Should you create a mobile website or a smartphone app for your online business? I know you are far more interested in the second question, but if I don’t answer the first question, the second one can’t be answered completely. So, hang on…

When Apple first came out with the iPad, I was initially sceptical that it will succeed. After all, this is Apple’s second attempt—the first attempt (when it was before Steve Jobs was back at the helm), theNewton, was a flop. Then Microsoft came up with the tablet computer (remember Windows XP Tablet Edition and the Pocket PC series) too and it didn’t really take off. So, why should the iPad succeed when its predecessor failed?

From a technologist’s point of view, the tablet computer is a flawed concept. Physically, it is not as portable as the iPhone—you can’t put the iPad inside your pocket. In terms of functionality, the iPad (and for that matter, Android tablets) is not as fully functional as full-fledged PCs, such as netbook computers. There are many still many things you can do on a tablet computer—for example, using the full power of a word processor or desktop publishing software to create a full length novel, do heavy duty video editing, run complex databases and spread-sheets complete with macros, write and develop programming code. For a person like me, the tablet is a half-baked computer.

When I look at the tablet from a technologist’s point of view, it will be impossible to understand why tablets hold so much appeal in the eyes of the consumers. But to understand why tablets become such a roaring success, I had to switch perspective from the technologist to the consumer. The moment I did that, I had this light-bulb moment and began to appreciate the vision and foresight of Steve Jobs. Ready for the light-bulb moment? Read on…

For the average consumers, they don’t care how computers or electronic gadgets work. They don’t appreciate nor care about their underlying technology. All they care is whether that those darn things work or not. And these things better work reliably and instantaneously the very moment they are summoned at the push of a button. After all, this is how things work in the offline world.  For example, whenever you turn on the water tap, you would expect water to flow out all the time. Whenever you press a button on the microwave oven, it reacts instantaneously and reliably cooks your food. When you turn a knob on the washing machine, the appliance responds immediately and washes your clothes 100% of the time. When you push the ‘On’ button on your TV remote control, it turns on the TV straightaway and shows you TV programs within a couple of seconds.

But what about the PC? In the pre-iPad era, PCs are seen as slow, unreliable and frustrating piece of contraption. Most of the time it works okay, but it often has the habit of stymieing what you are currently doing with incomprehensible and unexpected error messages, slow reactions and all sorts of technical excuses on why it can’t complete what you command it to do. Why can’t the PC work as instantaneously and reliably as everyday home appliances? Why do you have to often wait for the PC to do seemingly trivial tasks when it is supposed to be able to perform calculations millions of times faster than any human? Unfortunately, most consumers never ask this question because it has become the accepted order of things. They have come to accept that computers are that way.

Then one day, Apple came up with the iPhone followed by the iPad. Suddenly, consumers realised that a parallel universe exists where computers actually work, behave reliably and respond instantaneously. No more surprises, stuffs ups, excuses, freezes and wait. In fact, computers were no longer computers—they had become appliances. Once consumers got used to this parallel universe, there’s no going back to world of unreliable and unresponsive computers that don’t always work. Yes, tablet computers are not as functional as fully-fledged PCs, but they can do most of what consumers want to do.  For the stuffs that cannot be done on the tablet, they can always grudgingly return to their PCs. As more and more apps are developed for the iPad, the functionality gap between tablets and PCs will narrow, reducing the need for consumers to return to their PCs.

From this perspective, you can see why the iPad is such a roaring success because it actually brings consumers forward into the 21st century by changing the way the world thinks about computers. The rise of tablets also has a profound impact on PCs, as shown by the fact that Intel’s Ultrabook initiative is attempting to bring some of the characteristics of tablet computers (e.g. instant on, high responsiveness, sleep-mode updates, long battery life) back to the PCs. Without Apple’s iPad, I doubt behemoths like Intel and Microsoft would have put in the effort to innovate and bring PCs to the 21st century.

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