Thursday, January 26, 2012

The year of the iPad

Apple's financials are in and, as anyone who cares is certainly aware, they were off the charts. One particularly interesting aspect of the recent quarter is noted in a post on Asymco: namely, that if the only thing that Apple sold was the iPad, it would be the largest PC vendor by unit volume. This fact lends credence to Apple CEO Tim Cook, who on the earnings call revealed that he and others expect tablets to be a bigger market than PC's.

My own experience with the iPad is it tends to take over your computing life from the bottom up. You start out using it for specific tasks -- reading on the couch, browsing your favorite blogs, watching movies -- but over time more and more of your computing tasks end up on the iPad. This is despite the fact that the iPad is obviously and unapologetically limited in certain respects; typing on its on-screen keyboard is not as pleasant (and, in my experience more prone to error) than on a regular keyboard, and getting files onto and off of an iPad can be a bit of a pain in the ass.

This, however, is the standard path of disruption, called out in "The Innovator's Dilemma" and noted repeatedly in the years since. Disruption does not come from more powerful or more capable products, it comes from products that are sorely lacking in one respect but make up for that lack in other areas. The iPad isn't disrupting PC sales because you can do more on it; it's disrupting sales because the advantages of the iPad -- much less weight, far more mobile, much longer battery life, less hot, pleasant and intuitive interface -- are so strong that the customer comes over time not to care about the other things (or, perhaps, s/he cares less about what the iPad can't do than s/he cares about what it can do). Moreover, as is the case with other disruptive products, there are ways that Apple can tweak and refine the iPad to significantly address its weaknesses, but the Dell laptop I use at work is pretty much what it is. The next Dell I use will probably be faster, and maybe the battery life will be a little better, but those are iterative upgrades, and iterative upgrades are what disruptive products eat for lunch.

Note that this does not mean that Apple owns the future, necessarily. The arguments I've heard for why the Kindle Fire won't disrupt iPad sales all pertain to how much less you can do with a Kindle Fire, and as we've seen lesser capabilities are not a barrier to disruption. An iPad killer doesn't need to be better than an iPad, it just needs to be good enough at what it does well that consumers don't care so much about what it can't do, and it needs to have an upgrade path that will allow it to match and exceed the iPad over time. Does the Kindle Fire fit the bill? Time will tell; in the meantime, Apple is -- and, it seems, will remain -- king of the world.