Who will buy the iPad?

Jan 29 2010

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Naturally, I’ve been thinking about Apple’s iPad a lot lately.

It’s a lovely device with several limitations. I can see four major markets for it, and each gives me pause.

Geeks have a chicken-and-egg problem. They have two options:

  • Use it as a light laptop. Problem is, geeks need disk space for all their cool tools, and the iPad only has a few dozen GBs of storage. That’s going to frustrate folks, as they realize they can’t even download a full season of a TV show.
  • Live in the cloud, with all data stored on the web. Problem here is the iPad’s lack of Flash support. If you want to live in the cloud, you need that. (Five reasons: Hulu, Pandora, CNN video, FarmVille, and let’s be honest, lots of porn sites.)

Moreover, the iPad is a closed system, not meant to be hacked. How much will that interest the average geek? Oh, quite a few will buy iPads just to look cool and to tinker with it, but I don’t geeks massively turned on by it.

Retirees would be perfect iPad users — they use computers infrequently, mostly for email and occasional light web surfing and shopping.

But imagine you’re 65, you walk into an Apple store, and you tell an associate that you want an iPad. You’ll have six choices. How big of a hard drive will you need? How will you know? You can’t compare it to your current computer’s hard drive; it’ll be far less than that.

Then the associate will ask about whether you want the 3G modem with the data plan. How many retirees will be able to answer that question?

This assumes that the average retiree is willing to spend $500-$800 for an iPad. They’re going to look at that price tag and remember the Best Buy circulars advertising $250 netbooks. Remember, they don’t care about technology by definition (or they’d be using their computers for more than just email and light web surfing).

Students also seem like a natural fit, especially if there are textbooks. They can bring iPads to school, with all their textbooks on them, presumably non-3G models so they can’t surf the web while in school.

Makes sense, but Robert Scoble‘s son, a high school student, doesn’t think so. He points out that he would never put a $500-$800 device in a bookbag (and risk damage), nor bring a device that expensive to school where it would attract thieves and soon be stolen.

And that’s assuming strong textbook support. Textbook companies are not known for their technological savvy.

The most interesting market, to me, are organizations. If you want to make your millions, make an iPad app to store and display medical records, synced to a local data server. Every doctor’s office would have a couple. Imagine a factory manager with one of these. Or a meat inspector.

The problem there is that organizational adoption tends to be slow and unpredictable. You can’t make a success off a few organizations, either.

But that gets to back what the iPad is, the first commercial proof-of-concept tablet computer. This is the first reasonable tablet, but we’re not quite there technologically; nobody can cram absolutely everything onto a tablet yet. This is not The Tablet.

This is the kick-off. This version of the iPad may not sell like the iPod or iPhone did, but we’ve now entered the age of the tablet computer.

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