By now, you are drowning in commentary on the iPad. So, let me get to the point: Don't be fooled by the fancy hardware and "magical" talk: Apple isn't really committed to tablet computing ... yet.
This can be hard to appreciate when you hold a truly gorgeous object in your hand. Hardware seems much more convincing than a piece of software or website could ever be. But, unfortunately, hardware is easy*. That is why Nokia, and the like, can churn out hundreds of handset models a year for different markets. Software, on the other hand, is very very hard. It requires a level of commitment way beyond a glossy slab. In today's culture we live with software platforms for much longer than hardware (ditching our cell phones on an annual basis). And companies are stuck with legacy software systems much longer than hardware platforms —in fact, they never seem to go away.
This paradox was brought home to me by Tim Schaaff after he took the reins on software strategy at Sony in 2005. He remarked that at Sony, "The engineers think that the device is the 'car' and software is the 'fuel' that powers it. When in fact it is the other way around: Software is the car and devices are the fuel." By the way, Tim had just come from leading the QuickTime group at none other than Apple.
So, why do I suggest that Apple is hedging its bets despite all the hype? Because their software investment in the iPad is really, really low. All they have done is update a few of their apps, principally iWork, with new graphics that they can and will roll onto OS X pretty soon (once they add touch-screens to their laptops in the coming years).
So how will you know if Apple is ready to take the plunge and commit to the iPad? It's pretty simple:
1. Apple will have to break the link between the iPhone OS and the iPad OS. You will need and expect capabilities (such as the ability to truly run multiple apps simultaneously, not just "multitask" in the background) that are more robust than what they provide on iPhones (while preserving some app compatibility between the two environments). These are not just background and engineering issues. It is a crime that you can't launch the iPad with a set of active apps on your desktop (something that Apple pioneered five years ago with desktop widgets in OSX v 10.4). Don't tell me that Steve is satisfied with the current grid of static, floating icons as the starting point for his "magical" new computing paradigm. This interaction model may be OK for a smartphone, but it is really lame on a tablet (as Android will show next year, I suspect). After all, why would you run the same OS on a device with 12 hours of battery life as you would on a device with less than 2?
2. Apple will need to convince Microsoft to port Office over to their tablet OS. This is no small challenge. In 2001, Steve romanced Bill to port Office to OS X, practically saving Apple in the process (which is sort of ironic as Apple's market cap is set to surpass Microsoft's any day now). But without the ability to make simple edits changes to an Excel or PowerPoint file the tablet will never achieve the level of adoption that Apple needs for the third leg of its holy trinity (sorry for that terrible mixed metaphor). This is not just an issue for business users: the student market will also be limited without true Office support. Even Steve is not crazy enough to think that iWork will "magically" replace Office no matter how cool the slab
So when will Apple really commit to the iPad? The brilliance of this move is that they are getting all the hype on the cheap (unlike the iPhone which was a ground-up effort). And they will probably have a successful product on their hands either way, whether mass or niche. So Apple can afford to wait and see what happens before making a real commitment. I suspect, that is what many consumers are going to do as well.
*All right. Not all hardware is "easy." Silicon is HARD. And the iPad leverages Apple's new A4 chip technology. Developing chips is a major commitment for any company. But Apple will be leveraging their chip technology throughout their product line.
This blog originally appeared on the Design4Impact blog on Fast Company.
As frog's Vice President of Creative, Robert Fabricant leads efforts to expand the impact of design into new markets and industries. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert is lead partner in Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa. He is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.