Stating the Obvious

Apple's iPad

When Apple announced the iPad, I felt like one thing went without saying: the iPad is more than its form factor. But apparently that is not the case. I don’t claim to be a technology expert, so I can’t claim to predict whether the iPad will be a success or failure—whether the lack of flash, closed app approval process, lack of multitasking or any of a multitude of other perceived shortcomings will harm the device. Except to point out that many of those same flaws haven’t exactly hurt the iPhone and iPod Touch.

For years, computer makers have churned out Tablet PCs: with and without (slide-out or convertible) hardware keyboards; with and without stylus input; in various sizes and with various operating systems. Microsoft’s tablet adventures date back to Windows XP Tablet Edition in 2002. Back then, the idea was to basically replace the mouse with a stylus. To no surprise of the general public (because they were mostly not aware of the devices), these tablets weren’t a huge success.

Example Windows XP Tablet

Perhaps part of the failure for those devices owes to the technology available at the time. But more than anything, those devices failed in their software. Microsoft’s strategy was to leverage Windows, the most popular OS in the world, by making the huge number of popular programs available on their tablet OS. That strategy makes sense, but it also forced two insurmountable hurdles in front of the devices: the OS had to stick very closely to the look, feel and function of Windows, and the OS had to be build on the large (some would say bloated) Windows XP code base. If MS went a different direction, they risked breaking a large number of programs that depended on how Windows looked and functioned. The end result was essentially just a Windows computer, with a few tablet apps thrown in for good measure. The great staying power of Windows has had a lot to do with its backwards compatibility, so I’m not sure if the Windows tablets would have been successful with an entirely new OS.

The failure of Microsoft on touch-based operating systems is perhaps ironic, since most of the touch screens you encounter in your daily life run Windows software, but those are apparently added as layers on top the operating system. (You have seen the blue screen of death on an ATM before, haven’t you?) I don’t know exactly what vendors are involved in those devices, but MS was not able to leverage any of that technology in creating their early tablets. And judging by this presentation by Steve Ballmer at CES earlier in the month, they still don’t quite get it—despite quite a bit of experience in non-mouse-and-pointer interfaces (Surface, Xbox, IPTV etc.). What I see is Windows 7 loaded onto a touch device. There is a drastic difference between direct interaction (touch or stylus) and mouse-and-pointer interaction.[1]

The other day over at, John Gruber wrote this about the iPad:

“It is surprisingly, delightfully, iPhone-esque in many ways. But if you use it for just a few minutes, it becomes obvious that the iPad is not a big stretched-out iPhone, but rather that the iPhone is a shrunken stripped-down version of the iPad.”

Apple has a field-tested, completely touch-based platform that they are expanding up to fill the tablet role. Like Microsoft, Apple is looking to benefit from their installed base and application ecosystem.

If you haven’t used an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you should head to the nearest Apple store or ask your neighbor if you can see hers. (Hey, there’s a pick-up line for you: hey baby, can I see your iPhone?) In just a few minutes, almost everyone is comfortable finding their way around the device. When I went to look it iPhones in the first-generation days my almost five-year-old daughters figured out how to take and view pictures and play music in just the time it took me to decide how much storage I wanted. And they couldn’t even read yet.

Many pundits say that the iPad doesn’t do everything they want it to do. I heard the same thing when the iPhone came out. And the iPhone 3G. And the iPhone 3GS. But, to continue beating the dead horse that has already been thoroughly pummeled, here is the famous reaction to the original iPod launch in 2001: “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.

More iPad reading:

[1] This brings up one of the reasons I think Flash wouldn’t work on the iPad whether Apple allowed it or not: Flash interactions are designed for a standard PC with a mouse and pointer. Flash video controls would be too small to control on a touch device. Full Flash sites would be nearly impossible to navigate (how would you use all those non-standard scrollbars). And I’m not convinced all those free Flash games would be at all functional with a touch interface. back