Apple's play for platform dominance

The iPhone and Mac computers are never likely to dominate a particular market for Mac OS X. iPad represents Apple's real chance to do so in a market that is, for all intents and purposes, virgin territory.

Apple iPad

Maybe I'm getting pulled along by the tidal wave of hype accompanying Apple's new computing device. Then again, the hype does seem to be backed by some real demand. You don't have to hear it from me to know that the iPad looks like it is off to a flying start. Pictures this weekend of lines outside of Apple stores all across the United States support the notion that there is high demand for this kind of product. I was quite impressed with the device when I played with it at a West Hollywood Best Buy this past Saturday.

It seems likely that Apple will sell stacks of iPads this year, and if growth follows a similar trajectory to iPhone, its popularity will only accelerate with each new generation. More important for Apple, though, is that the iPad is designed to generate LOTS of revenue...for Apple. Apple's iPad business model provides multiple revenue "whacks," starting when people buy the device in the first place, followed by an ongoing revenue stream from the cut Apple takes on every application sold through its App store (which is, consequently, the only way to get an application onto an iPad, which to my mind, is a clear step backwards). Microsoft would have killed to have had a similar model for Windows, followed most assuredly by antitrust officials returning the favor by splintering the company into a 1000 little pieces.

Sales numbers are important, though they aren't the only reason the iPad represents Apple's attempt to make real developer mindshare gains for Objective-C and its Cocoa family of APIs (the technologies which underlie native development atop the Mac OS X platform). Clearly, Apple executives have that in mind. Positioning Mac OS X as the foundation of its line of computers, iPod Touch and iPhone devices was a hint of things to come, as it means every new user creates that much more demand for the platform as a whole (which is why it drives me crazy that Microsoft never really achieved true platform unification; most of its devices are based on Windows CE, not base Windows). It provides context for Apple's attack on former friend Adobe and its Flash technology. Apple can't really do anything to stop HTML and web technologies from being a viable platform for applications, as failure to support them properly would all but doom any network-aware device they offered to market. However, the limitations of web applications ensure that companies will need to write non-browser applications. Apple has ensured that those applications will be mostly Objective-C using Cocoa, at least for their new line of portable products.

iPad, however, can cement Apple's APIs as a de facto standard similar to the role Microsoft's WIN32 APIs serve on desktop computers, in ways that iPhone and Apple's computer line never could. From a computer standpoint, Apple is unlikely to ever displace Windows, or make much of a dent in the server space (not that Apple has tried very much, Mac OS X Server notwithstanding), though they might manage an uptick. That battle is over, and Microsoft won it. Dominate a new category of computing category, maybe (hint hint). They aren't, however, going to end up the de facto standard in desktop computers.

Apple has made large strides in the phone space, to be sure. The iPhone redefined the category, changing completely what users expect from data-connected smartphones. The problem with phones, though, is that they are a bit like cars and clothes. They are personally identifiable and expressive of individuality in ways a desktop computer isn't (though I think it is notable that Apple has had most success, from a computer standpoint, in laptops, something people do carry on their person and use publicly in places like coffee bars and Internet cafes). Apple will have a large share of the smartphone market, but I don't ever see them controlling the market the way Microsoft did with Windows.

The iPad is different. It is a new-ish category, one that has been tried by others (notably Microsoft). Those predecessors, however, were hamstrung by an inability to simplify the interaction model for a new form factor. That, consequently, is the same thing that torpedoed Windows Mobile, at least once something better appeared on the horizon. Apple is entering the market with a large number of applications, a great distribution network centered around its iTunes Application and content store, and a sense for design of products people use in public spaces. What is unique about the space iPad enters is that it is, at core, a tools market.

Don't get me wrong, people WILL buy iPads because it sports the big Apple logo on back and is the much-hyped cool new technology least for now. That mania, however, will fade, just as the iPhone glitz is starting to fade as Androids pop up on networks around the world, attracted by a business model that pays them to carry it (Google, a services and advertising company, can do that, which is why it is such a threat to both Apple and Microsoft's business model). What will keep Apple pumping out iPads, in my opinion, is if it makes a great tool that is easy to use and has available to it a large supply of helpful applications (the same thing that initially made Windows so compelling). In the tools category, usefulness eclipses sex appeal (though Apple knows that the latter never completely goes away). As Microsoft demonstrated with its control of the platform used on personal computers, one company can achieve overwhelming market share of a tool. With that market share, Apple can grow developer mindshare. Developers (myself included) follow the market.

It would be hard to mistake me for a fan of Apple products. I've never liked Apple computers, favoring the developer-friendliness, universal compatibility and UI flexibility of Windows. I can't stand Apple business practices, whether it involves predatory lawsuits designed to curtail growth in Android's market share or the hammerlock they have over the approval process for applications that appear on an iPhone or iPad. I strongly dislike Apple development technologies (Objective-C in particular), though fortunately for Apple, that is something most people care nothing about.

But, I've never faulted their hardware design skills, and I certainly can't fault them their strategy. Apple is rolling out an entirely new category of product while its larger (for now) competitor, Microsoft, is struggling to roll out a sensible competitor to the iPhone and Android. But, I'm not a fan of Ed Hardy-brand clothes, hate the De Beers-created cultivation of invidious distinction centered around sparkly rocks, and have never found an insurance company about whom I've had good things to say. My dislike of the company, in other words, isn't likely to change the fact that Apple is one of the smartest companies in computers these days.

Will I buy an iPad? I certainly won't rule it out. As noted, the device feels very easy to use. I can see a lot of use for it for quick browsing of the Internet, retrieval of email (it supports Exchange, so I can check my corporate email), and maybe even watching Netflix in bed. I previously thought that I couldn't see myself reading books on it due to its backlit screen (the same reason I hate reading documents on a laptop), though I'm less sure after holding it in my hands. I read LOTS of boring technical PDFs these days, and the iPad would be a great way to go through them (though getting them ONTO the device was made unnecessarily tricky due to Apple's decision to omit an SD slot or a USB port).

The thing that struck my wife and me was that this would be perfect for her non-technical parents (not my parents, who are bigger geeks than I am). Computers ARE too complicated, and this was almost as easy to use as opening a book and reading from it.

I won't ever stop rooting for another company to take bigger market share so long as Apple is the kind of company that it is (Google seems the most likely candidate). But, I will appreciate the design of their products.