The Apple iPad’s arrival, heralded by unprecedented levels of media hype, has divided opinion, but there is agreement across the telecoms, media, and software industries that it deserves close attention. Media companies are hoping it provides a much-needed boost to their revenues. Whether or not it’s the savior of the publishing industry and the future of computing, in order to succeed, the iPad must attract third parties to build on Apple’s solid user experience and make a compelling case for tablet computing.
Apple announced first-day sales in the US of 300,000 units, with users downloading 250,000 e-books and 1 million apps in the first day of availability: a similar start to the first iPhone model. But can Apple convert these early adopter sales into mainstream acceptance?
Unlike Apple’s previous breakout hits, the iPhone and iPod, the iPad is attempting to invent a set of consumer behaviors rather than solve an evident design or technology problem. People replaced their feature phones with iPhones, and their portable CD players with iPods. It’s difficult to see what the iPad is meant to replace. Apple is variously positioning the iPad as a web browser, a multimedia device, an e-reader, a games console, and a platform for third-party apps, but the iPad cannot replace a smartphone or a notebook PC (the iPad is reliant on iTunes running on a PC for managing most content).
Nevertheless, the user experience of the iPad, developed further into more capable devices, may indeed change expectations of personal computers (in the same way as the iPhone changed expectations of phones) without itself being the perfect embodiment of a portable computing ideal.
This is tablet computing, Apple style
It is uncertain whether this first iPad will reach mass-market acceptance, given its high price and unproven use case. Even so, it could still act as the spearhead for a new category of simplified portable devices built around large-format touchscreens. This is the hope of many of Apple’s competitors, who are hurrying their own tablets to market.
Early reviews of the iPad have praised its user interface and industrial design. Its technical limitations (chiefly a lack of USB ports, Adobe Flash support, and multi-tasking OS) are seen by many as less important than the shift in user experience that a large-screen touch interface can offer – if executed well.
The familiarity of developers with the iPad platform (due to its close relationship with the iPhone OS) will play a big part in the iPad’s success: third-party developers will need to provide “killer” apps that make the iPad a must-have device. Apple’s ferocious control over app approval, and its refusal to support key cross-platform technologies such as Adobe Flash, are sticking points that will make some developers cautious.
The iPad alone won't save traditional media
The iPad has generated significant attention from magazine and news print publishers hoping to leverage the device’s combination of desirable hardware, controlled content delivery channels, the maturity of the iTunes Store billing platform, and a deeply engaged user base, to deliver and monetize their own content.
Newspapers and magazines, facing a crisis of declining circulation and advertising revenues, are scrambling to launch digital editions of their papers as iPad apps. As publishers move away from ad-funded-only digital models and experiment with charging for content, the iPad offers the opportunity to package media in application and digital edition form and differentiate the product from that available through the browser, where consumers have become conditioned to free access.
The difficulty for publishers is that, even based on the most optimistic of analyst sales forecasts, the installed base of iPads in the market will take years to reach levels that are financially significant for large publishers. Ovum estimates that 13 million iPads will be sold globally by the end of 2011, and publishers will find that the iPad media marketplace becomes very crowded very quickly. iPad revenues for individual publishers will not be sufficient in any scenario to compensate for their loss of income from declining print paid circulation and advertising revenues.
Nevertheless, the iPad is a slick and attractive device for presenting content in the best possible light, and is already being heavily adopted by publishers in this context. Publishers will still need to pursue a multi-platform strategy encompassing print, web, mobile web, smartphone apps, tablets, e-readers, and even TVs. The iPad’s role is as a showcase device for premium content, not as a high-volume earner.