After the iPad, the iSystem
It was inevitable that the unprecedented media coverage, anticipation and speculation in the run-up to the launch of the iPad would quickly morph into debate and analysis. And so it was. Within minutes of the launch event, people on the blogosphere, in offices and coffee shops around the world began discussing the merits of the device and whether it met expectations.
Most of the discussion so far appears to focus on the device itself and its features. This is regardless of whether you were at the event, have experienced an iPad first hand or whether you’ve just seen the pictures. What does it feel like to hold and use? Does it run flash, can I have more than one application open at a time, does it have a camera and so on. So far the reception seems mixed. That may change once people start using the iPad (certainly Stephen Fry’s view in today’s Guardian) and Apple products do have a history of improving with later models. The fact that the focus of the debate is about the device itself is understandable, but following the iPad launch via a live blog there was something that bothered me at the time. A few hours later I realised it was this picture…
Looking at these 3 devices together it struck me that the real opportunity here is the new system the iPad creates rather than the device itself, which after all, some are interpreting as an enlarged iPod. An evolution rather than revolution.
Apple is a leader in ‘joined-up’ and design thinking. For example, they saw that an MP3 player is just a commodity without a compelling way to access music. So they created a ‘system’ which included access to content. It’s the combination of the iPod with iTunes which is so powerful. Again they nailed this with the iPhone and the App Store. The iPhone would just be another smart phone in the long run were it not for the App Store. The ‘system’ has preserved the longevity and robustness of the iPhone’s popularity.
Don’t get me wrong, the iPad itself makes a lot sense. It is a milestone device that will further enable and change the way we interact and experience the online world and other content. The device’s dimensions also address the problem that no matter how good a small device like the iPod can be, some activities just require a larger scale. Either because of ergonomic factors such as keyboard size or some content such as newspapers or movies are best experienced at a large size.
So the iPad is perfectly placed to fit into, and will no doubt add momentum to many influential themes such as convergence, mobility, social connectedness, open source, cloud computing as well as opening new possibilities for applications and content.
But here’s what’s bothering me, at least. In another sense the iPad is anti convergent. As good as the functions and features it offers are, in reality it‘s another device that people will have to carry around and use along with the other ones they already have. The iPad is not a replacement for the phone or laptop and people will need all of these. So stepping back from the device itself and looking at the system it fits into, it’s not actually the step forward it could be.
For some situations you just want the real thing, be it a camera with a decent lens or a proper sized and tactile keyboard. At some point, the amount of features you can stuff into a device leads to compromises, whereby in the end you still revert to specialised devices. We just end up with more gadgets and complexity, not less. So rather than focusing on how many features can be put into something, perhaps the opportunity is how brilliant devices connect and interact with each other. The iPhone, Macbook and iPad are 3 such devices. Give me a really good camera that easily talks to the other devices it needs to.
Rather than applying design thinking just within each vertical i.e. iPod to iTunes, iPad to app store, the new device is a strategic opportunity to extend the idea laterally between the devices as well as a great product in it’s own right. In other words Apple had, and still has, an opportunity to apply design thinking up another layer by thinking about the way these 3 types of devices (phone, tablet, laptop) could interact and connect with each other in the physical and virtual sense and also extend this through to other elements outside the Apple system. Now that would have been a revolutionary launch context for the iPad.
So am I the only one thinking…
The above sketch crudely illustrates how considering the way the devices interact in the physical and virtual sense would create some interesting outcomes. In this context, perhaps the iPad is actually just the next generation of laptop screens which are detachable, multi-function, gestural devices as standard. You have a main unit with a powerful CPU and large hard drive, a proper keyboard (i.e. all the benefits of the laptop). You have the ability to detach the iPad for a tablet mode and you have an integrated dock for an iPhone which, with an interactive casing and screen, could double up as the mouse. The devices could share one power supply as opposed to having to lug three around.
There may be some interesting options for the way the devices could interact with each other as well. The way they could share data, be sync’d to the same cloud access points such as the app store and control and talk to each other. Perhaps, a new type of device will emerge that connects all these things together.
Whether devices combine in this exact fashion or not, isn’t really my point, after all the idea of a modular computer is not new. But there’s a deeper opportunity here. Sure the iPad creates another clever niche, but as good as the promise the device holds in isolation, the real opportunity is how Apple’s core product range works as a system. iSystem anyone?