Today’s news that the iPad sold 2 million units in its first two months – coming as it does right before Steve Jobs takes the stage at his only public conference appearance in years outside carefully scripted Apple launch events – led me to reflect on my prediction, in January of this year, that the “iPad would disappoint” (that’d be #5, scroll down).
In that prediction, which was not without its failures, I wrote:
Sorry Apple fanboys, but the use case is missing, even if the thing is gorgeous and kicks ass for so many other reasons. Until the computing UI includes culturally integrated voice recognition and a new approach to browsing (see #4), the “iTablet” is just Newton 2.0. Of course, the Newton was just the iPhone, ten years early and without the phone bit….and the Mac was just Windows, ten years before Windows really took hold, and Next was just ….oh never mind.
In essence, what I was saying is that the nexus of first wave computing (Windows OS) and second wave computing (the web) had not caught up to Jobs’ vision of the third wave – mobile, multi-touch web-enabled interfaces. I was also hinting at my own bias that voice will become an important part of our interface to machines. Another bias: the assumption that Apple’s tablet would actually attempt to connect the first two waves of computing meaningfully to the third.
I think my prediction was right in the short term (when the iPad was announced, nearly everyone was disappointed at what it wasn’t, see the headlines from January, above), and I was totally wrong in the medium term (the thing has sold two million plus and probably has a shot at being Time magazine’s “man of the year” for 2010). However I still believe I’ll be entirely correct in the long term, in particular if Apple doesn’t change its tune on how the iPad interacts with the web.
Allow me to unpack that last statement.
What I missed, at least in my initial prediction, was how entirely hermetic and “un-weblike” the iPad would end up being. Like many others, I was surprised at how complete Apple’s disdain is for traditional computing models – including its own Macintosh. The iPad would not be an open development environment – instead it adopted the iPhone model of command and control. The iPad would not allow you to run Mac applications – only iPad/iPhone specific apps approved by Apple would work, and that meant no Microsoft Office, thank you very little. The iPad wouldn’t even let you cut and paste – an innovation Apple pioneered – and worst of all, it seemed, the iPad wouldn’t use Flash – a proxy, as it were, for “the rest of the web that Steve Jobs didn’t quite like very much.”
So initially, anyway, the hue and cry about the iPad amongst the tech elite was decidedly disappointed. The iPad wasn’t a computer! The iPad was just a big iPhone – but without the phone, or even the camera! It’s an overgrown iPod Touch! It breaks the web!
Then it came out, and wow, was it purty. Apple has done it again, we all marveled – the iPad’s genius, it seemed, was that it didn’t try to be a computer – instead, it was a gorgeous device for consumption of media and interaction with apps. And sure, those apps could be web enabled – on the back end – as long as the web was channeled into structured, Apple approved fashion (no third party data sharing, natch). And sure, you could surf the the “real web,” but only if you went through the Apple approved browser, which finds Flash unworthy of rendering.
No matter. The fact is, the iPad is a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal.
The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged – one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL – and gave birth to Google.
It was the link that made the web what it is today, and it’s the link – reinterpreted in various new strains – that drives innovation on the web still. The link is the synapse between you, me, and a billion other humans – and the signal (dare I say, a signal one might consider third party data) which allows a million ideas to flourish.
So let me ask you one question, right now: Can you link to an app on your iPad? And I don’t mean a link to download the app on iTunes, folks. I mean, can you create an ecosystem of links, deep into your iPad application(s), links that connect your particular activity stream inside that app with other streams, other links, and other intentions across the web? In ways that create new values, both predictable and unpredicted?
The answer is no. Anymore than you could link to pages deep inside AOL, back when it was a walled garden.
Sure, AOL eventually figured out the web would win, but by then, it was too late.
Next week, Apple will make any number of announcements at its WWDC. I’m hoping the company will announce that it is tacking away from its walled garden approach with the iPad, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Apple makes gorgeous products, but ultimately, I think any product which rejects the web’s core value of connection will simply disappoint. But more likely than not, it’ll be a year or two before that becomes apparent.
PS – If you want a deeper dive on Apple and the web, read this: Will Apple Embrace the Web? No.