Computers · Opinions

The Third Pad

I’ve become used to thinking of Apple’s product releases as falling into two categories: “outreach” or “consolidation”.

Outreach releases are new products, or products introducing features that users will be unfamiliar with or that are novel enough to be headliners in adverts.

Consolidation releases do essentially the same as the previous release, but faster or more neatly. Usually they look the same as well.

Early adopters buy and promote the outreach releases, with the “new” stuff in them. Late adopters are reassured that the product is “safe” in time to buy the consolidation release, which also has better specifications, is perhaps more reliable, and has a longer lifetime before replacement.

(I’m sure there are standard names for these two in business terminology. I’ve never had any education in business. From random things I’ve read, I’d like to say “disruptive” and “sustaining”, but I don’t think my uses really match the established meanings of these.)

Of course, there’s some room for argument about which release is of which type.

That’s what pubs are for.

In my view, outreach releases include the first iPhone, the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 4, the first iPad and the first MacBook Air.  Consolidation releases include the iPhone 3GS and 4S, subsequent MacBook Airs, and all the iPod touch models.  Roughly speaking, the release types alternate.

What about the iPad 2?

I think of the iPad 2 as the ultimate consolidation release.

Although it looked different from the first iPad, essentially every change in the iPad 2 could be seen as a deliberate elimination of a specific reason that buyers and reviewers had cited as putting them off the original.

Reviewers complained that the iPad was too heavy. (They did this so much that, when I first picked up an iPad, I was surprised by how light it was because all the reviews had got me to expect something much heavier.)  But the iPad 2 was much lighter, and it looked slighter and easier to hold.

The iPad was too hard to grip and hold: so the iPad 2, as well as being lighter, had an accessory cover that could be used to prop it up for reading.

The iPad was dismissed as being only for reading and consuming content, not for doing anything creative with: the iPad 2 launched in conjunction with dedicated versions of products like Garage Band and iMovie.

Potential tablet-producing rivals liked to talk about the inferior speed of the iPad, so the iPad 2 had a faster core. Even though it didn’t make an enormous difference to the usability of the product, the speed boost comprehensively eliminated a nominal reason to buy anyone else’s product.

Everything about the iPad 2 was an exercise in eliminating objections. Other than simply not being able to afford it, almost all of the factual objections to the iPad were dealt with in its successor.

Consolidating strength

The iPad 2 is the most impressive product, in terms of design and launch expertise, that I have ever seen from a company.

Without doing anything radically new, Apple turned a product that was brilliant, but received with some uncertainty, into a product that was almost impossible to refuse on any grounds other than cost.

The launch of the iPad 2 was the moment when it became apparent that Apple was flattening its competition. After the original iPad came out, I thought—as clearly a lot of other people did—that “the tablet” was, generically, going to be a huge thing, and I started plotting the potential fortunes of all the existing smartphone companies in terms of how well I imagined they might do in the “tablet space”.  (I own the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, and I really like it: I certainly hoped Samsung would do well with it.)  I overestimated all of them, and I certainly overestimated my own estimation abilities.

The iPad 2 marked the point of failure for anyone like me who was trying to understand the market by analogy from established PC or mobile phone manufacturers.

The “iPad 3”

The sort of historical alternation between product types I’ve alluded to suggests that the iPad 3 should be an outreach product—one that looks or feels substantially different, or that has some really novel feature to promote.

I’ve no way to know, but I suspect that isn’t really going to be the case. The iPad 2 is still so far ahead of any alternatives in the market that there is no appreciable competition to attack through novelty. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have one yet, but the iPad 2 has been so successful that it’s reasonable to expect the speed of its outflow to continue: nothing substantial has changed for the worse in the environment it has to work in.

Presumably the iPad 3 will have the double-resolution screen that many commentators have talked about, and will have voice control. Beyond that, anything new that Apple include might almost be seen as a gift to their future customers. They don’t need to do it.