Saturday, January 30, 2010

Is Apple falling behind itself in the innovation game?

A  version of this post, including early reactions from Asia, appeared first in VentureBeat

I agree, having a title like that on a day Steve Jobs introduced what is arguably “Apple’s greatest” device is debatable. But nevertheless, today’s unveiling of the iPad begs that question. While the iPad undoubtedly has top-of-the-line hardware, and a ready content/application ecosystem to feed on, however, does that mean Apple has genuinely innovated in creating a device category that can potentially rescue the legions of traditional media players? Or does it mean that Apple has created a device that can move an entire content stream from other devices/screens on to the iPad? I don’t believe so.

Innovation begins where conventional thinking ends. With the iphone, Apple had done just that. They questioned the fundamental thinking of handset vendors on why keypads should be there, on why compelling third-party applications can’t be built easily, and many more. However, with the iPad, Apple appears to have fallen for the trap of sticking to conventions and building products that do more of the same. True, the iPad indeed boasts a variety of features, targeted at e-book readers, regular content-viewing consumers, and ‘business’ consumers (although I am highly skeptical if we are going to see too many people suited up and using iWork on the iPad).  Apple has also thrown in a 3G radio and sewn-up a flat-rate data plan with its long-time partner, AT&T. But somewhere, all of these bells and whistles fall short.

Apple's iPad adopts a position that is confusing, both to the industry observer and the consumer. While the Kindle and the iPod tried to push consumers to adopt different screens/devices for different needs, the iPad, by attempting to do bits of everything, runs the risk of falling into a no-man's land! For instance, consider its suggested role as a netbook replacement. You cannot run regular Mac OS X apps! And lack of multitasking means users cannot perform basic netbook-style activities such as having a twitter client open whilst streaming music from an online radio. The lack of a camera is also likely to flummox consumers who would expect a $600+ mobile browsing device to allow video-conferencing. And finally, despite the high-end 1 GHz processor that the iPad boasts of, Flash is still off-limits for iPad users, stunting the overall browsing experience. Similarly, take its comparison to a portable high-res media player. The device lacks widescreen display, and you can't connect it to your large-screen TV. 

For more, consider its role as an evolved music player. You're stuck with the amount of memory you opt for, no expandable memory slots for you. Its positioning as a gaming device is probably the only thing that makes sense. Social gaming apps are likely to get a shot in the arm with this category. However, serious gaming remains a big if. Such hazy positioning makes for a potent combo when one takes the pricing of the device into consideration. Although it might start at $499, once you add 3G capability, a 3G data plan (the $15 plan for 250MB from AT&T is a joke for this kind of a device) and the keyboard, and suddenly even the entry-level iPad looks much pricier. Beyond the consumer, Apple also runs the risk of cannibalizing sales of its profitable Mac lines. 

Apple has historically shown that it has been ahead of the innovation curve, atleast in the decade gone by. Starting with the iPod, the iPhone, and the Macs, and the ever-neglected Apple TV, Apple products have always been known for going the extra mile in building innovative solutions for consumer challenges and in the process, profitable business lines for themselves. However, with the iPad, all I see is a product that does a little of many things, a product that tries to build on past glory (not necessarily a bad thing) and most importantly, a product that is representative of other technology companies and not Apple.

Make no mistake, the iPad will likely sell in strong numbers. It might strike it rich in some of the Western Europe markets as well, but as for as I am concerned, this is a step back for the innovative company that I have admired for long.
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