Apple's iPad: the next big thing?
Thursday, May 24, 2001
NOTE: This post was written in 2001, nine years before the actual iPad was announced by Apple.


At least five times in the past 10 years engineers at Apple have worked on initiatives to bring a full-sized tablet-based computer to market. Though the previous four attempts never saw the light of day, Apple has saved the best for last. This July: Meet iPad. The Apple iPad:
  • Tablet: 11.5" x 9" x 0.7"
  • 12" 1024x768 LCD touch- and stylus-sensitive screen
  • No keyboard or mouse (optional attachment via USB)
  • USB port
  • Dual speakers and headphone jack
  • Internal HD
  • 5-hour battery life and charging cradle
  • Airport wireless connectivity
  • 2-3 lbs
  • $999
The following is a work of speculation. It does not consist of any leaked information, nor does it purport to be a rumor. Instead it is a predictive analysis based on past Apple research, Apple's current market strategies, and recent product and technology positioning. This is an inferential assessment a likely direction for the Macintosh platform. After writing this article, I checked around on the web to collect rumor references and artist's conceptions. If the legality of any of the referenced information is questioned by Apple, it should be made clear that this article is not a derivative work from that information, and is not affected by any restrictions on that information. I. Introduction Since Steve Jobs retook the helm at Apple, the products, technologies, and media campaigns that have emerged have presented a much more holistic marketing front. Like a general coordinating the actions of several fronts for maximum effect, Jobs has taken care to position new products and initiatives to pave the way for the next. In short, Jobs thinks several steps ahead, and executes accordingly. Events, both over the last year, and going back as far as 1987, are coming to a head, which will likely result in the release of the iPad at Macworld Expo New York this July. II. The 'original' Newton In 1987 Apple (specifically, Bill Atkinson and John Sculley) made a speculative video about the 'knowledge navigator,' a portable device with full motion color video, voice recognition, and wireless data connectivity. Though the technology was not available to realize this vision, Atkinson instead wrote HyperCard, realizing several of the software goals he envisioned for the navigator. Four years later Michael Tchao, an Apple marketing specialist, approached then CEO John Scully and pitched what would eventually become the Newton MessagePad. At the time, Apple was already investigating the prospect of pen-based interfaces; in fact the "Newton" as originally envisioned and being worked on at the time by an advance technologies group led by Larry Tesler, was for a wireless pad with handwriting recognition -- that would cost a projected $8000. (From "Defying Graviity (sic)", 1993) III. The 'public' Newton Fast-forward two years to the Newton MessagePad's release in the summer of 1993. Apple launched a marketing campaign bigger than any in its history to that point. The Newton was going to revolutionize the way people worked. Scully claimed that 'personal digital assistants,' or PDAs, terms coined by the Newton marketing team, would eventually have a $3.5 trillion market. In the end, the Newton was a technological marvel and a media disaster. The core problem was marketing and sales. In 1993 there were three ways to inform the public about your product: Point-of-purchase information, advertising, and media attention. Moreover, you had to be good at at least two of them for your product to be successful. Apple poured money into advertising and point-of-purchase kiosks. They seeded Netwons to journalists, artists, and other celebrities, thinking that anyone who touched one would love it. (This worked very well with the original Mac 128K.) Unfortunately the expectations of engineers and devotees differed greatly from those of the average user, and the MessagePad's lackluster ParaGraph handwriting recognition became the focus of media attention. A revised and greatly improved recognizer, dubbed 'Rosetta,' came too late to save the Messagepad. The Dante Newton OS 2.0 release was a huge leap forward, but it came at a time when Apple wasn't certain whether to market the device as a vertical or horizontal solution, and wasn't as committed to making a PR disaster work as it was two years earlier. Despite long-time rumblings from within Newton and in the developer community about the creation of a Newton Slate, it was never to be. Two months after being spun off as its own company by Gil Amelio, Newton was brought back into the fold and killed by Jobs shortly after assuming the i-CEO role. IV. Hancock: The Mac tablet that never was. An even greater victim of the media's response to Apple's handwriting recognition engine was Hancock. For several years prior to the Messagepad's release, Apple engineers were working on a MacOS (System 7) based tablet computer. Using the PowerBooks Duo's architecture as a base, Hancock was to be a 3-4 lb tablet computer with handwriting recognition incorporated into the operating system (MacWEEK, circa December 1993). In early 1994 the project had gone far enough that Apple was soliciting developers to be development hardware seed sites, but the project was scrapped shortly thereafter because the negative media attention surrounding the Newton made the acceptance of a tablet-based Mac seem unlikely. Fast-forwarding several years, several market and conditions have changed drastically. Wireless connectivity is now a standard option on the entire Apple line. Later-generation PDAs have acclimated people to either tolerating handwriting recognition, using specialized entry methods such as graffiti, or typing on on-screen soft-keyboards. Most importantly, fabrication techniques have driven costs and sizes much lower. The time is right for the iPad. V. The Road to iPad From a marketing strategy standpoint, Apple's actions of the past 18 months seem to be paving the way for the iPad. Prior to the 2000 MWNY, the public expressed a lack of options with the four-product grid (iMac, iBook, Power Mac, PowerBook), and so the Cube was unveiled, widening the grid to 5 (or, as many say, 6 with a midrange portable member in absentia). This led to a rash of 'CubeBook' rumors circling in the months and weeks before MWSF in January 2001. The idea was that Apple was going to release a subnotebook, smaller and lighter than the existing G3 PowerBook, to fill the broad gulf between the iBook and the G3 PowerBook (Pismo). Instead Apple delivered the G4 Titanium PowerBook to replace Pismo on the high end, and we would have to wait another four months before getting the iBook dual-usb, a machine that, despite the iBook moniker, resembled the CubeBook rumors (down to the clear-on-pearl finish) more than it did the iBook that it displaced. For those who live and die by Apple's product grid for predicting hardware moves, this led to confusion, as there was no room between the new iBook and the PBTi for another machine. Indeed, it seems that Apple intentionally closed the gap between the two. Unlike the original iBook, its replacement wouldn't seem out of place in the office or the briefcase. Effectively, aside from the name and targeting the educational market, Apple moved the iBook over one spot, from the low- to mid-range portable product spot, like a tile puzzle with one tile missing, only that void was now in the low-end mobile square. Unlike the Newton's rollout in 1993, Apple has over the last four years honed its marketing machine to the point where it has a much greater control over transmission of the message. The web is now a primary information source for potential buyers, and Apple has spared no expense in spreading its message clearly and effectively, both through the Apple site and QuickTime streaming of Apple events and keynote speeches. Just as important, Apple has made huge expenditures to control the point-of-sale as well. After failed attempts to control the sale environment at department stores like Sears and Best Buy, Apple took it a step further with the CompUSA store-within-a-store initiative, the Apple Online Store, and most recently with the Apple Retail Stores. Apple's goal is to ensure that anyone who wants to find out more about Apple products can do so in an informed environment, without relying on salespeople who may be ignorant of the product line, concerned with commissions, or who hold windows-centric views. It's not unreasonable to speculate that if Apple had these marketing vehicles in place when the Newton was first released, it could hold the spot as the front-running PDA (though there were other problems involving Apple's lack of willingness to scale the Newton down to smaller sizes, that really fall outside this article). VI. The Marketing Rationale This leaves the biggest question: Who would buy an iPad? The iPad's target market would be different than any of its failed predecessors. It would be targeted as the perfect addition to an already computer-enabled home, office, or school. With Airport connectivity it would be ready to network with other modern Mac (or even PC) environments with 802.11 networks. Existing Mac users without Airport would only need to buy a $99 card for their existing Mac, or a base module for their home or office. The iPad would be your computer away from your computer. While most computers require you to work around them, sitting at a desk or table, typing and mousing with both hands, the iPad is the thing you could have on your lap when you're watching TV and responding to email, carrying on an instant-message conversation, or making dinner with recipes from the web. The more we use computers for information acquisition, the less we type, and the more appropriate pen- and touch-based systems are. Unlike the Audrey, the iPaq terminal, or other forays into inexpensive information appliances, the iPad wouldn't be dumbed down. It will not be positioned as the computer for people who don't think they're ready for a computer, but instead as the appliance for people who are looking for a second computer. This is an important distinction: Since Apple has been touting both the PowerBook and iBook as all-in-one solutions, there is less and less incentive to purchase both a desktop and a mobile Macintosh. Palm computing recently announced that their quarterly sales would fall 50% below previous estimates, and this is largely because existing Palm owners don't feel that there is enough incentive to buy a new one. $300-$450 is a lot to spend to get a better screen, a thinner palm, or an expansion slot. Similarly, computer sales are slowing industry-wide because the cost of replacement isn't justified by the added functionality. The iPad would be a boost to Apple's sales because an iPad sale wouldn't come at the expense of the sale of another Apple CPU. VII: Meet the iPad So what would go into this technological marvel? First off, it will run Mac OS X. Rather than forcing the user to learn something new (we mock what we do not understand, hence the demise of MagicLink, Audrey, AT&T's EO, et cetera) or use a platform which still standardizes on smaller screen sizes (Palm, WinCE), it will be a Mac through and through. To save on size, and to firm its position as a secondary device, it won't have a CD-ROM drive bay, relying on a networked computer or external USB device for software installation. This isn't the first time Apple's done this (Duo, Comet, PowerBook 100), so it's not wading into uncharted territory. It is likely that the device would have facility for a net-boot option, to recover if something happened to the internal boot volume. Though downplayed, USB devices could still be used to make this a regular computer. Plug in the USB keyboard and mouse, place the iPad on its charging stand, and you would have a respectable desktop machine. Unplug USB and lift it out of the charging cradle and you have a tablet Mac. Firewire is doubtful, not just to cut down on expense, but to increase the difference between an iPad and iBook or iMac. USB can satisfy most of the iPad needs. An internal modem would be probable, though on-board Ethernet is unlikely. The general motif here would be to include minimal functionality for networking, dialup, peripherals, etc, but without the higher-end or redundant functionality reserved for higher-end machines. The PC-card slot could go either way. The iBook doesn't have one, causing problems for Ricochet or CDPD-based wireless users. It's certainly possible that the iPad would have a PC-card slot, but I would doubt it, again citing Apple's desire to not cannibalize other Mac sales. While you would use your PowerBook to write a paper in the library, you would use your iPad to sketch notes in class. Where you could print out reference material like recipes and maps from a desktop Mac, you could bring the iPad with you to the kitchen or the car (with a passenger doing the navigating, hopefully). As portable as the iBook and other notebooks are, there are so many times when it's too much trouble to open it, balance and type at anything but a table. With an iPad you'd leave the computer desk behind completely. VIII: The Time is Now As for the timing, Apple finally has its ducks in a row. Apple again has positive momentum as an innovator in the press. The market is ready for the device, and Microsoft has recently announced a team working on producing exactly such a device, anticipated in mid-2002, with a price tag of between $2-3000, legitimizing the market, especially at a $1000 price-point (interesting side note: Microsoft made a similar announcement last year, but anticipated that the device would run WinCE, not XP). Where Apple's industrial engineering was, for many years, better at exterior design than interior efficiency, the current PowerBooks and the Cube prove that Apple is technically capable of building a device with the dimensions stated above. Without a keyboard, trackpad, or extra layer of exterior skin needed for a hinged PowerBook, the Titanium would be a third of an inch thinner. Without these items, a CD-ROM drive, a hinged architecture, external video, hardwired ethernet, second USB port, or firewire port, an iPad could sell for $300 less than an iBook, dropping to $800 within 12 months. There is one more reason why the iPad will be launched in July: It will be Apple's killer OS X app. One OS X feature that has gone relatively unheralded in recent weeks is the ability to run OS X as either a terminal server or a thin client. Practically, this means that any OS X computer could act as a thin client for any other OS X computer on the web, merely acting as a screen and input device. Used in this fashion, an iPad would be a 'portable monitor and touchpad' for a dominant Mac. An iPad user wouldn't have to worry about mounting Appleshare volumes, syncing files, or installing software in multiple locations. This functionality, though possible before using tools such as Timbuktu or PCanywhere, is streamlined in OS X's Unix environment. It blurs the line between a computer and an appliance, and it shows the power of OS X at a very attractive price point. By introducing a new line of hardware that takes such unique advantage of OS X's new capabilities, Apple is proving the value of the new platform, while at the same time requiring users to upgrade their existiing dominant machine to OS X to take advantage of it, fulfilling Apple's essential goal of moving the platform to the new OS which, as any WWDC attendee can tell you, is imperative to convince Mac developers to release OS X native applications as soon as possible. This is an evolving story, and as such this is a living document. In coming weeks more data will undoutably come out. When it does, check for the latest news and rumors. If you have more info, email me at
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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
I've been blogging at since 1998.
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I'm co-founder in
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I've led design at Mozilla Labs, designed Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, FriendFeed, and a few special projects at Facebook.

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