The Apple Ecosystem And The Post-PC World

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When I’m lonely and bored, I like to go back and read my old articles and marvel at how well I’ve been leading you through the fast-changing world of technology. It was just a year ago that I wrote these incisive comments about what to expect from Apple’s original iPad:

It’s not going to revolutionize anything, it’s not going to replace netbooks . . . [A]  couple of years from now the low-end version of the iPad will be something like $199 or $299 . . .

Really, not a bad analysis, except for the part about being wrong and completely missing the biggest technology shift of our generation. It’s small comfort that other people didn’t see the iPad tsunami coming either, as David Pogue amusingly wrote up last week. (“ “An utter disappointment and abysmal failure” (Orange County Design Blog). “Consumers seem genuinely baffled by why they might need it” (Businessweek). “Insanely great it is not” (MarketWatch). “My god, am I underwhelmed” (Gizmodo).”)

Apple sold 15 million iPads in nine months, destroyed the market for netbooks, and created a new product category that will dominate the industry in 2011. The iPad 2 went on sale Friday and is 100% sold out everywhere in the United States on Sunday evening. (Online orders from Apple are currently showing a 3-4 week delay.)

Competitors will try to steal some of the market for themselves this year, with more or less success. Google will introduce a version of the Android operating system optimized for tablets and a host of manufacturers will bring them to market. Blackberry and HP both have their own tablets in the pipeline. Amazon might step in unexpectedly – it’s developing its own app store, ostensibly for Android, and has its experience with the Kindle to draw on.

It’s the year of the tablet. Although there will be competitors, Apple has put something together that no one else seems to understand.

This is worth repeating. It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology is not enough. It’s tech married with the liberal arts and the humanities. Nowhere is that more true than in the post-PC products. Our competitors are looking at this like it’s the next PC market. That is not the right approach to this. These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive.

That’s Steve Jobs speaking at the iPad 2 event on March 2. He’s right. Apple’s achievement is not defined by an individual device, and it’s not just the triumph of the engineering of the iPhone or iPad. What Apple has put together is an ecosystem of devices that work together with each other and with Apple’s online services (most notably the iTunes store), to provide easy access to a rich world of media and apps – originally aimed at personal entertainment but with increasing appeal to businesses. Apple devices are not independent of computers, but they don’t overlap with them all that much, except to the extent that the computers have some common characteristics with our mobile devices – an Internet connection, a screen. It’s not particularly relevant whether the computer involved is a Mac or a PC.

There is one flaw in what is otherwise a masterful package: iTunes for PCs is awful software. It’s intrusive, buggy, it slows things down, it installs unwanted bits of software and network services, and it causes other programs to break. What has become clear in the last year is the unfortunate reality that iTunes’ weaknesses are not enough reason to avoid the Apple ecosystem. Paul Thurrott wrote this recently, which makes the point:

We’re going to have a less than ideal relationship with Apple until it completely fixes/overhauls iTunes, which is a mess, but leaving that aside for a moment what Apple is creating here is an ecosystem that is as complementary to Windows users’ setups as it is to Mac users. There is nothing like the iTunes Store anywhere else for media content (TV shows, movies, music, iTunes U, podcasts, audio books, and more) or for apps, apps that now run across a wide variety of devices: iPods, iPads, and iPhones. Why would anyone choose to ignore this?

Ultimately, I recommend those tech products and services that make the most sense for Windows users. It’s getting harder and harder to look away from the Apple stuff. The company’s relentless improvements and innovation can be breathtaking. There’s nothing like it from other companies, not to this scale. There just isn’t.

The iPad 2 is only changed in modest ways from the original iPad, but there is one change that will make a bigger difference than you would expect: it’s thinner, quite a lot thinner. The weight is almost the same, but the thinness changes the way it feels in the hand and makes it seem even more elegant. Compared to the iPad 2,  brand new competitors like the Motorola Xoom seem bulky and obese.

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There is also a completely unexpected development: the competitors are not cheaper. They are at or above the iPad 2 price point. Apparently there is no easy way to lower the price by buying cheaper components – Apple has already wrung all the volume price breaks and efficiencies out of the supply channel.

I’m sure Google will produce a nice tablet operating system, just as it did with the Android operating system for mobile phones, but it’s hard to imagine many ways that an Android tablet will be better than an iPad 2.

Businesses will initially be drawn to the iPad for its elegant presentation of Exchange mailboxes, email and calendars synced online, the same feature that drove everyone to get smartphones last year. Many people will find more business uses for a tablet than they expected. It’s plausible to take remote control of an office computer using LogMeIn Ignition, for example – a little clumsy compared to the experience of sitting at a home computer or a notebook, but perfectly usable. Dropbox makes it easy to move documents onto the iPad on the fly, for use in court or in a meeting. Cloud services running in a browser are just as accessible from a tablet as a computer. Law firms storing files with NetDocuments, offices running on Sharepoint, consultants using Autotask – as we migrate away from locally installed PC programs and begin to rely on cloud services, we will find more and more of our business tasks can be done as easily on a tablet as a computer. You’re not going to spend much time with traditional office applications on a tablet but you might find other things that make it a completely legitimate business write-off.

I think a lot of you will show me your new tablets this year. It promises to be exciting!