A recent post on Engadget says that the iPad has become the ‘most quickly adopted non-phone electronic product’. It apparently has sold more units than the original iPhone or the DVD player in its initial few months. According to Brian Dunn, CEO of BestBuy, the iPad appears to be cutting into netbook sales. What it may not be doing (yet, anyways) is doing much to change the sales numbers of notebooks, at least according to NPD. So why is the iPad so popular (and likely why other tablets will do well)? By objective measures, the device isn’t exactly a computing powerhouse, and compared to netbooks and full notebooks, it is priced on the high side. Any netbook will have substantially more storage and more processing power. Full notebooks have considerably more power, memory and storage, and more capable graphics support. Both netbooks and notebooks will run technologies like Java and Flash, something not available on the iPad. So, even though the iPad is less capable technologically, and more expensive, why has it done so well? I have some personal hypotheses about that. These aren’t based on exhaustive research or studies, but are just my observations.
Let’s talk about price first: the cheapest product doesn’t always win. Look at the automotive world, in particular the mid-sized family car market. This is a segment that has models available from 9 different manufacturers, in a wide array of prices. The model that sells the most, in terms of actual cars, is the Toyota Camry. It isn’t the most expensive in the segment, but it is very close to the top. But it still outsells the next biggest competitor (the Honda Accord) by about 15%, and sells about 4-5 times more models in a year than the cheapest competitors from companies like Kia and Dodge. Customers will pay a premium for value (whether than value is real or perceived). Consumers can be price-conscious, but they are also aware of product image, durability, reliability and the nebulous “value”, where they feel they get enough for their money. The iPad isn’t cheap, but there is a value proposition for people, as well as a reputation (good or bad) about the “cool” factor of Apple products. From what I’ve seen, people feel like they’ve gotten more out of their iPad, even though it was more expensive, than they did or would out of a netbook or even a notebook.
The next big attraction, in my opinion, is the form factor combined with its size. The iPad is portable enough for most people, but still offers a nice, big screen to view apps and content. Netbooks are a bit bigger and heavier, they have a clamshell design needed to support the keyboard, and their screens are physically smaller and often not as pleasant to look at. From my observations, a lot of iPad users really don’t do that much typing, so having a full physical keyboard available for a rarely-used activity is not a benefit. I know from my own experience that the cramped keyboard on most netbooks is not a pleasant way to have to type, and when I need to type a lot, I move over to a notebook or desktop computer. For those that do want a keyboard, there is an option to use a Bluetooth keyboard with an iPad (but it is a bit cumbersome from a portability standpoint). But for what I use my iPad for, and what others I’ve seen do, the larger screen of the iPad is a big part of the appeal. It makes it easy to watch TV shows and movies. I also use mine for reading books, occasional web surfing and some games, among a host of other activities. All of them depend on having a reasonable-sized screen that offers a clear image.
The responsiveness of mundane tasks on the iPad is another plus. Even with solid-state drives, a netbook takes some time to start. Granted, its sometimes only a few seconds, but it is typically at least 10 seconds, and sometimes more, depending on the storage technology. Most people who have netbooks are invariable running some version of Windows, and it takes time for it to start. The iPad? Turn it on, and it’s on. My TV doesn’t start nearly as quickly. The iPad is nearly instantaneous. The only devices I have that are as quick are my iPhone, my microwave oven and my toaster. App startup is, with some exceptions, very, very fast. Most apps start faster on my iPad than simple applications do on my MacBook with a solid state drive. That immediacy is attractive (and the lack of it in some apps can be frustrating). Is it a big deal? Probably not. It’s not something most iPad users I’ve spoken with notice until you point it out to them. However, I can see their reaction when starting applications on their notebooks, and they are less patient than they were prior to getting their iPad.
The care and feeding of an iPad is also simpler than a netbook, for the most part. As mentioned, most people will be running Windows on their netbook. While this gives you theoretical access to the entire (and vast) library of Windows applications, it also means you have all the work associated with maintaining Windows. You have to keep up with the patches and updates from Microsoft. Installing an application is a multi-step process than can take 5 minutes or more. There are times when you find out that the application you installed doesn’t actually like your hardware, but you sometimes don’t find that out until you’ve gone through the installation and then fired up the software. Installing apps on the iPad is trivial: go to the app store, find what you want, buy it and you’re done. If you buy them through iTunes, it is equally simple: find it, buy it, plug in your iPad and now the app is there. Granted there are some frustrations for larger apps, since they can only be obtained through iTunes on a desktop or notebook. Some really, really big apps won’t update, even through WiFi. iPad OS updates are fairly simple, but their only downside is that it is a sizeable download that can only be done via iTunes. You cannot update the iPad over the air.
In the end, the attraction of the iPad doesn’t seem to be any one, single element of the device. It continues to sell well, despite some weaknesses compared to technologies like netbooks. But it’s the sum of its parts, the fact that it does a lot of little things just a bit better than other technologies, that seem to make a difference to most people. Going back to cars, it’s like the Honda Civic: there isn’t one, lone feature that most buyers point to and say “that’s why I bought it”. It isn’t dramatically better than the current Ford Focus in one particular area. It’s a lot of little things done just a little bit better that attract more buyers to the Civic than to most other compact cars. The current generation of iPad is competently executed, and done “well enough” that people like them, and more people want them. It isn’t the most powerful computing platform, nor is it the cheapest, but it is “good enough” for what most people seem to want.