I sensed a slight thud of disappointment when Apple unveiled its latest version of the iPad
the other day. The almost sub-audible sound was similar to the sigh of disappointment last fall, when Apple released the iPhone 4S.
I’d like to think the lack of hysteria is because the Apple fanboys are finally growing up, but I suspect it’s something else: Over the past decade, Apple has made its fan base expect a violent revolution with every new product — a “game changer” or a “disruptive technology,” in the current parlance. When the fans were presented last fall with the iPhone 4S, which was more evolutionary than the anticipated revolutionary iPhone 5, they were disappointed. The same happened the other day when Apple unloaded an iPad that boasts such impressive features as a “retina-quality” screen resolution, a faster processor, 4G LTE connectivity, a beefed-up camera, and a bunch of new apps. They’re all welcome evolutionary features, but nothing that could realistically be called revolutionary.
In short, whatever is revolutionary about the device — whatever it’s called, the iPad 3, or the iPad HD, or simply “the new iPad” — is stuff that will impress geeks and hard-core Apple fans less than it will knock the socks off first-time iPad buyers. But that’s the problem: It’s the geeks who sing about their excitement for Apple products, and it’s the buyers who listen. And if it’s not a siren song, then product sales might suffer.
But this is Apple, after all, and the mild disappointment is not likely to have much of an immediate effect on the newest iPad’s sales. But it’s worrisome because the first two products announced in the post-Steve Jobs era have not set the world on fire, and Tim Cook, Apple’s new and decidedly uncharismatic CEO, needs a few electrifying products to cement his position as Apple boss and show the world the company is going to continue raising the bar for everyone else.
Without a feature that can truly be called disruptive, Mr. Cook was forced to shunt disappointment into a dead-end debate over whether the iPad had helped usher Apple products into something he called the “post-PC world”
“In many ways the iPad is reinventing portable computing, and it’s outstripping the wildest of predictions,” he told his audience and added that the company had sold 172 million “post-PC” devices in 2011, meaning iPads, iPods and iPhones.
To which Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s successor to CEO Bill Gates, snorted, “Of course we are in a post-PC world
I checked out the geek hangout site Slashdot
after the launch to see how the hard-core set was reacting to the launch, and found a common theme: Most were pretty impressed by the iPad’s video, which is being described as having a resolution similar to that of the human retina, but concluded they weren’t finding a whole lot of reasons compelling enough to upgrade from their current iPads.
A cooler head prevailed. “The iPad is still in the rapid growth phase,” he said. “They [Apple] need to appeal to people who don't yet have an iPad, not people who already have a slightly older model.”
Apple, however, has been relying on techies to act as its evangelists, but without much to crow about the techies are not likely to preach as hard. Instead, they’re examining Apple’s new leadership and parsing its every move, or picking up Mr. Cook’s pointless argument about a “post-PC world.”
One Slashdot member
said that “Without Steve Jobs doing the dramatics [of the launch] watching the Live Blog
was almost as exciting as watching grass grow.”
The next two comments summed up the situation perfectly. “Tim Cook may be as wooden as a door, but that man knows distribution,” said the first. The second retorted: “Just what I'm looking for — a distribution professional to do my PR.”
This encapsulates the problem Apple finds itself in. After having fought for so long as an underdog and relying on its often over-caffeinated and unruly fanboys to do its promotional work, Apple is now on top of the world’s tech heap and finds itself with a monkey on its back: Everything it does must by sensational to its legions of evangelists, especially without Steve Jobs around to illuminate everything with his divine halo.
The first hint we got of this problem was last year, when Apple introduced the iPad 2. On his TV show, the far-sighted comedian Stephen Colbert held the iPad 2 aloft and gushed, “It’s just like the original iPad, but it’s … new.”
He could as easily have repeated the gag this year and been just as accurate.
If anyone who pays attention to tech had been asked two weeks ago what should go into the third version of the iPad, most would have wanted something like what they were given, including the stunning screen, the fast 4G LTE connectivity, a faster processor and a beefed-up camera. (A roundup of iPad 3 pre-launch rumours listing just these features was published by CNET
). In short, these are all things that would make the new iPad appealing to first-time buyers.
A product reaching its maturity, like the new iPad, has more trouble appealing to the “early adopters,” meaning those whose main impetus for buying a product is to be the first to get one and be able to boast loudly about it as an evangelist.
But what Apple is doing with the new iPad is sound business practice, and will have a stronger long-term effect on the broader market than it will on the easily-jaded hard-core buyers.