When the iPad was first announced in January 2010, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber explained Apple’s purpose with an interesting analogy [about automatic transmissions replacing manual transmissions in cars].
Gruber is a smart guy and I wouldn’t bet against him when it comes to Apple, even here. But there is a problem with this analogy. It’s much more convincing if you live in North America than in Europe.
Note: there is one thing that will undermine the iPad/iPad Mini’s successful invasion of general computing. It’s included at the bottom.
Tom at The Unknown Coast critiques John Gruber’s analogy that the iPad is to a desktop computer as an automatic is to a manual, pointing out that most of Europe drives manual-transmission cars. I hadn’t noticed until now that my own piece on the iPad introduction (original WordPress version), published back in 2010, just a week after John’s take in Daring Fireball, also mentions a manual transmission, but only briefly. The specific issue is fair (assuming it’s accurate that Europeans generally drive stick), but Gruber’s analogy is still valid.
Europeans don’t have manual spark advance. They don’t have manual chokes. They don’t crank-start their cars, or drive on inner-tube tires. There are a myriad more recent automotive examples I could give — it’s likely most Europeans enjoy computer-controlled fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, and power-steering — but the point isn’t whether European cars have manual transmissions, or whether one particular technological advancement is inevitable or not; it’s that with cars as well as in computing, the overwhelming trend is simplification and abstraction.
Denying that the iPad is a general purpose computer is an exercise in climbing the hills to avoid the rising flood of applications. When the iPad was released, there were numerous software categories where the the iPad had nothing to offer. Over the last two years that has steadily changed. There are still things you can’t do on an iPad, but increasingly they are niche tasks that a small percent of people do with their computers.
Millions of people are buying the iPad, and for many it is their main computer, or their only computer. Apple is already the market leader in overall PC shipments, if you count the iPad as a computer.
Breakthrough products often start out inferior to their competition, but then the market prioritizes different tasks, where the new products are strong. The iPhone was inferior to the BlackBerry in texting and email. As those tasks became just two of the hundreds of things people do with their phones, the iPhone eclipsed its predecessors and redefined the smart phone. Likewise, the iPad has weaknesses compared to laptops and desktops, but as the definition of what it means to use a computer changes, the iPad’s position grows stronger.
So it’s a mistake to think that the iPad Mini will undermine the iPad’s growth as a general-purpose computer just because it’s smaller. The iPhone is a reasonable computer replacement for many tasks, with an even smaller display. Having the option of a roughly-half-sized iPad will just mean that people have more choices, and the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire have some serious competition.
There is one thing that would be disappointing: the new user interaction model includes not just touch, but voice. This piece was written on my MacBook only because I don’t have the latest iPad (or a USB keyboard — there are limits to how much typing I want to do on glass). It seems unlikely that any new Apple hardware will lack voice input, but if the iPad Mini doesn’t support Siri, that will be a big issue.