Over the past few months rumours about a new Apple device – variously dubbed the iSlate, the iTablet, and the iPad – have abounded. The wait is finally over; on 27 January Apple announced its new device, the iPad. Here are some thoughts of mine about the iPad, in particular from the point of view of publishing.
If I had to summarise the iPad in one word, it would be this: convergence. It brings together a multitude of features and functionalities that are already available on the market: a screen not too big and not too small (9.7 inches – nearly the same as most netbooks); wireless access and, in some versions, 3G access; a touch-screen (“virtual”) keyboard roughly the same size as that on a netbook; and multimedia, web-browsing, e-mail and general computing capabilities. So what’s new?
Well, not much really – at least not in terms of general functionality. But then the same could be said about the iPhone when that came out (all it really did was converge disparate functions which were already available in different devices), and that proved a groundbreaking formula which other mobile phone manufacturers have yet to rival. Is the iPad therefore likely to revolutionise the consumer market yet again? Let’s see.
First, some facts. The iPad has a 9.7 inch screen (nearly the same size as the Kindle DX – that’s the large one). It’s 0.5 inches thin and weighs 1.5lb, which is very thin and fairly light. It doesn’t have a physical keyboard; instead the screen can be used as a keyboard for inputting text. A final figure is the price: starting at $499 that’s half the price of what many people were predicting. If you want 3G in addition to wireless connectivity the price goes up, as it does as well for more memory.
Steve Jobs in his launch presentation went to great lengths to outline that what they were trying to build was a third type of device, between the mobile phone and the laptop. He more or less acknowledged that that space is currently being filled by netbooks, but stated that they were just “small, cheap laptops”. The iPad, meanwhile, is “the best”: “the best way to experience the web, email, photos and videos”. A tall order. So will it garner some market-share from the netbook market? Almost certainly, since it is lighter and even more compact since the keyboard is effectively integrated into the screen, and because the screen quality may well be better than that of most netbooks. For some, though, the absence of a physical keyboard will prove uncomfortable, so this feature is unlikely to allow Apple to entirely corner this market.
Another of the main device-genres it is going head-to-head with is the dedicated ebook reader such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. And it will almost certainly steal some of its market share since those two devices are fairly limited in what they can do (allow you to read books, and, in the case of the Kindle, also do some limited websurfing and emailing), and are black-and-white only. The iPad offers significantly more at an only slightly higher price. However, dedicated ebook readers will still have one over the iPad in terms of ease of reading. Ebook readers typically deploy a technology called e-ink; this makes reading off their screens nearly as comfortable on the eyes as reading off paper. The screen on the iPad meanwhile, like those on computer monitors and mobile phones, is backlit, making it tougher on the eyes to do extensive reading (and, incidentally, draining the battery much more quickly). So for some consumers the added functionalities of the iPad will be attractive, while others will prefer a device which does less, but does that better.
Apart from the hardware, though, the other big selling point for the iPad is the expansion of its iTunes store to not only offer music and apps (which, incidentally, also work on the iPad – a huge bonus), but also “ebooks” in epub format. I put “ebooks” into quotation marks because the epub format does not just support text, but also embedded audio and video, animations and more. This will allow publishers to create much richer content, and distribute it easily and directly to the consumer. Whether this will constitute a complete revolution is questionable though. iTunes really was the first of its kind when it first came out – the first mechanism for buying music in pretty much any way a customer might want to buy it – on a song-by-song basis, the entire album, the entire album plus a video, etc. In the case of educational content, though, this isn’t the case: there are already a multitude of channels available through which customers can buy digital content: http://www.ebooks.com , http://shop.ebrary.com , http://waterstones.com/ebooks , publishers’ own websites and so on. Apple will no doubt point towards its new media-rich format, but again that’s not new; companies such as http://www.blankpage.ch already provide this on a range of platforms, meaning consumers don’t have to buy yet another piece of hardware. So this will make it a bit more of a challenge to Apple to convince customers that their offering is unique.
What it almost certainly will do, though, is drive the market towards devices of a similar size with colour, multimedia capabilities, ultimately on a screen which will become better and easier on the eyes than the current one. This in turn will push the market towards content that is multi-media rich: instead of just plain text, consumers (I hesitate to call them “readers”) will be more interested in content that mixes the written word, audio, video and more – much like CD-ROMs have been affording us for nearly two decades now.
So what does all of this mean for publishers?
All in all therefore a mixed bag with regards to whether the iPad will herald a revolution or merely an evolution. Of course, what may just make the day for Apple is the iPad’s form factor – the look and feel which Apple is so good at, and which has made millions of people hold the iPhone in their hands and say “wow”. As they say, watch this space.
Thoughts and links to articles about a variety of ICT and education-related topics. Where an article or resource is referred to in the header of a blog post please click the header to read the article.
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