The iPad's missed market opportunity: The computer for the rest of us
Back in January, when I spent part of a morning in a crowded auditorium trying to resist a Reality Distortion Field during the Apple iPad's debut, I had a somewhat wistful thought: What if you could buy the 3G mobile-broadband version of this thing to use as your only computer?
Yes, I know: It can't run "real" programs, and Apple arbitrarily and unfairly regulates the applications you can load on it. Typing on its screen doesn't allow for extended writing. Adobe Flash content doesn't work on it. And yet: A non-trivial fraction of Internet users aren't looking for anything more complicated than e-mail and basic Web access, more of it involving reading than writing. They'd do without a lot of the extras that usually come with the Net--like, say, updating the Flash plug-in every few months or picking the "right" anti-virus program. And if they could spend a little less upfront and each month, so much better.
For a few moments in that auditorium in San Francisco, I thought the iPad could be such a thing. AT&T's $29.99/month unlimited-access plan undercuts many broadband services' rates; its $14.99-for-250-megabytes option might sound limited, but if you have little interest in Web multimedia it can still last a long time.
But then I realized that an iPad would be just as handcuffed to a desktop copy of Apple's iTunes software as any iPod or iPhone. You can't set up an iPad without a computer, nor can you update its software or back up all its data. And if you'd like an iPad bigger or smaller than the current model, there's no guarantee that Apple will make one to suit your needs; in these matters, Apple wants what Apple wants.
That thinking led to the question behind today's column: If Apple won't fill that role, could somebody else? As it turns out, Palm's webOS doesn't require a computer--a Pre or Pixi downloads updates and backs up your data over the air. Google's Android software is almost as untied, relying on that company's Web services for calendar and contacts synchronization (but not backup). You'd just need a company eager to differentiate itself from generic Windows-based computers to step into this market.
I don't know if HP, the owner-elect of Palm (the transaction should conclude in July) has any such concrete plans, or how many other manufacturers are looking to make Android-based tablets to fill the space in the market Apple seems to be leaving open. But I do know that if PC manufacturers think they can greet the iPad with another set of warmed-over, ill-suited Windows-based machines, they're going to lose.
So here are my questions: Do you think those companies will take advantage of this opportunity? And if they did, would you buy a hypothetical smartphone-derived tablet for yourself or anybody else?
May 7, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories: Gadgets , Mobile
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