Recently I extolled the virtues of netbooks as an ideal device for travellers, due to their light weight, long battery life and very low (sub $500) cost. When the iPad was subsequently announced I assumed that it would be a “netbook killer”. However, after reading about them and having a brief play with one, I’m not so sure. In fact, once all the current enthusiasm for the iPad dies down, I don’t know exactly what its role will be.
This is not to knock the iPad, through which Apple has done to the tablet computer what it did through the iPhone to the mobile phone – remake the current crop of disparate poorly-implemented devices as a well-executed package integrated with a great, intuitive interface which can be used as a platform for a range of applications.
The difference of course is that the mobile phone was already a ubiquitous device when the iPhone came along. Millions of people already had the things and knew roughly what to do with them, though Apple was certainly successful in making a better interface and extending the range of phone-based activities.
In geological terms, the mobile phone market was not so much as a niche as a very large depression, one only partly filled by a lake of existing devices which the iPhone successfully swamped. To labour the metaphor, the iPhone then went on to fill up most of the neighbouring niches and creating new ones, courtesy of the vast range of iPhone apps.
By comparison the tablet was only a very small niche before Apple arrived. While the iPad is likely to fill this relatively small hole, this is not that significant an achievement. Apple and the apps providers also need to fill a lot of connected niches – and create new ones to fill as well – to give the iPad critical mass.
This is complicated by the fact that, because of its size, the iPad is unlikely to become a ubiquitous device like the mobile phone – for a start, you can’t just put one in your pocket, or indeed the average handbag, as you zoom out the front door. This will obviously limit its numbers, unless a great killer app or two can be found.
Such an app is unlikely to come from the ranks of iPhone apps ported to the iPad – after all, the iPad can use all of these already. It will likely have to be something new which is best suited to the iPad form factor. One suggested example is the delivery of newspapers, though electronic paper could well do a better job of displaying these (that is, if anyone ever actually releases electronic paper displays on a commercial basis). It may be that the killer iPad app is yet to be written.
This brings me back to the iPad’s potential as a netbook killer. There is little doubt that the iPad may be the ideal device for some travellers, especially those who just want to send and receive emails, look up websites (provided they don’t use Flash) or upload and post holiday photos (provided they buy the appropriate attachment). It also has almost twice the battery life of a netbook and would no doubt suit many (well-heeled) tourists.
However a netbook can do all of these things, albeit less elegantly, and is easier to use for anything more complex such as word processing or photo editing. It is also a lot cheaper – ironically, your average business traveller who can afford to buy an iPad may prefer to stick with a netbook because it is much easier to use the latter to type up that last-minute report on the early-bird flight to Melbourne. This response is also consistent with the suggestion that iPads are best thought of as content consumption rather than content production devices.
While I can’t predict whether such a killer iPad application will emerge or what that application might be, it’s interesting to consider how the iPad might be used in relation to some of the Web 2.0 applications I have previously reviewed. Those workshop or conference tools such as Poll Everywhere or iMeet which require interactive, real time participant input might benefit the most. MyCommittee also has potential, but only once it can be used to run actual committee meetings themselves.
Perhaps more intriguing are the web-based mind mapping applications I reviewed last year, such as Comapping, Mindomo and MindMeister. These may also require some adjustment but they would offer the potential for brainstorming or mind mapping for small groups using iPads.
In summary, while the jury is still out on the extent to which the iPad will succeeed, there is a lot of potential to use the device to capture feedback interactively in meetings, workshops and conferences which should be explored by NGOs and small businesses – that is, if you can afford to buy the things in the first place. I’d be interested in any suggestions about other Web 2.0 applications for the NGO or small business sectors that are designed for iPads or which might be particularly useful in the iPad format.