Now that the bottled-up, rumour-fed hyperbole has died off, and now that the naysayers have had their, well, naysay — only now can the real contemplation of Apple's iPad begin. And while the device is certain to shake up a broad range of online industries, one of its biggest lessons may well be for the world's telecommunications carriers.
As users of Apple's products would be well aware, part of the company's success has come from changing the buying behaviour of consumers — often by convincing them that Apple offers a more complete experience unencumbered by the old way of doing things. Apple is like the television evangelist that tells cripples they can walk, then takes away their crutches and proves it.
For a generation of PC users accustomed to new features being squeezed in next to old ones, that's a strange approach. But for those who are willing to put aside such niceties as floppy drives, notebook trackpad buttons, mice with buttons, Apple's ascetic approach has proved remarkably successful. Steve Jobs hates buttons, and his life's mission is to convince you he's right.
With the launch of the iPad, Apple is taking a similar approach to carriers — convincing them that the world will work better if everybody can, well, think different. Yet while Apple's first mobile-and-applications platform, the iPhone, played into carriers' comfort zones, this time the lesson is simple: the phone, that seemingly antiquated voice service on which every carrier in the world built its current business, is dead. Or, as they say in the classics, mostly dead.
Now, the iPad isn't being marketed as a phone, and it doesn't include phone features like the iPhone. Understandable, really: can you imagine hefting one of those slabs to your ear to make a call? Just the thought is an ergonomic nightmare of Maxwell Smart-ian proportions.
Yet the iPad is perfectly capable of making phone calls via VoIP, of course, using applications like Skype or dozens of other iPhone VoIP tools. Put it on your lap or on the table, plug in an iPhone hands-free, and you'll be chatting away in no time. Omit the hands-free, and you have an instant conference call. Add a front-mounted video camera, as Apple is apparently ready to do, and you have an instant portable video-conferencing device.
To date, such applications have only been possible over local Wi-Fi connections, a restriction imposed years ago to prevent users siphoning calling revenues away from the carriers they depend upon. The restriction was a bow to the urges of AT&T, which as Apple's sole US carrier partner has had tremendous control over the spread of iPhone features: witness the massive delays in delivery of MMS and tethering to US customers.
The iPad will pick up where the iPhone left off by relegating voice from being a key feature of the product, to little more than an application run across it.
The times, they are a-changing. After years of railing against VoIP, AT&T lifted its ban on VoIP calling last October, allowing the service to be used over its 3G network and paving the way for people to use VoIP applications wherever they happen to be. Apple has since amended its developer conditions to permit such applications, and with last week's launch of the iPad — and its new software development kit v3.2 — the VoIP floodgates have burst open. The past week saw new releases of iCall, Fring, and Actobits Softphone, and another app called WalkieTalkie is on the way through the App Store's approval process.
VoIP's 800-pound gorilla, Skype, has not yet played its hand, but it's impossible to believe that company isn't about to update its iPhone application to take advantage of 3G. And once that happens, the horse will have well and truly bolted: VoIP will replace voice calling for many users. The iPad will pick up where the iPhone left off by relegating voice from being a key feature of the product, to little more than an application run across it. Heck, a recent survey by Galaxy Research suggested Australians are increasingly turning to Skype to reach loved ones over the holiday season (disclaimer: the study was Skype-sponsored so take it with the usual grains of salt), and another study by TeleGeography suggested Skype's traffic would grow 63 per cent between 2008 and 2009, outpacing the growth of traditional international traffic.
This has major implications for carriers, which have had their hands full providing enough capacity and coverage to keep up with the increasing demands of smartphone users who, with the widespread take-up of the iPhone, are actually now using the data services for which 3G was designed. Carriers love anything that increases usage, and the iPad seems to be gaining favour, but it does change the game for them quite considerably: no longer is data the add-on to the core voice services. In the iPad's world, data is the only game.
Carriers have met customers' growing demands by progressing from a voice-only GSM network, to bolting on basic data features, to the current voice-and-data hybrid 3G networks. Coming 4G networks will take this trend to its obvious conclusion, building out a data-only infrastructure on which iPads, and the inevitable onslaught of imitators, could become the major access points.
It won't be voice calling that will push people to 4G: it will be the promise of ubiquitous, high-speed data access to the iPad and all sorts of other devices.
It won't be voice calling that will push people to 4G: it will be the promise of ubiquitous, high-speed data access to the iPad and all sorts of other devices. To meet this demand, carriers need to forget about voice calling as they know it, focusing their efforts not on increasing voice calling capacity but simply on ensuring there is adequate data bandwidth across their mobile coverage areas.
Now, the astute of you will point out that the iPad isn't the first computer that can get online and use VoIP applications over 3G: millions of people are doing similar things using 3G wireless broadband services. But really — who wants to lug out and boot up the computer every time they want to make a phone call? Why not just pick up your handy tablet, which Apple hopes will become your all-the-time companion, and fire up your soft phone?
It took a decade, but the shift away from phone-capable devices is finally underway in a big way. And, as far as disruptive forces go, that's not a bad result. Just how much, and how far, the iPad changes the world may well be determined by the carriers that connect them — and their owners — to the rest of the world.