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Consumers Weigh Apple’s iPad Buzz, Future of Tablet Computing

April 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Apple's new iPad tablet hit stores over the weekend, selling some 300,000 devices on its first day. Jeffrey Brown gets two points of view about the iPad and what it could mean for the future of mobile computing devices.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now: two technology updates.

We start with the gadget being promoted as Apple’s and maybe computing’s next big thing.

CROWD: Three, two, one!

JEFFREY BROWN: The iPad, Apple’s new tablet computer, hit stores early Saturday. And, across the country, thousands of customers lined up to be among the first to take one home.

MAN: I’m very thrilled. I waited here since 3:00 in the morning.

MAN: I think five days, four nights.

JEFFREY BROWN: Billed as combining many features of a laptop and a smartphone, though it doesn’t actually have a phone capability yet, the iPad’s release had been much anticipated and hotly hyped since it was introduced in January.

STEPHEN COLBERT, host, “The Colbert Report”: Just look how quickly it makes delicious salsa.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Apple said it had sold more than 300,000 iPads on the first day, more than the number of iPhones sold on its first day, but well below what some analysts had forecast.

Starting at $499, the iPad is a touch-screen tablet, a half-inch thick and weighing 1.5 pounds, with a nearly 10-inch color screen. It plays music and video, browses the Web, runs the Macintosh operating system, with access to thousands of applications, and can be used for creating content, much like a personal computer.

The iPad is also Apple’s first foray into the world of e-books, complete with its own electronic bookstore. It will go head to head with Amazon’s popular Kindle in the growing e-book market.

With all the hype, though, came some disappointments about what the iPad doesn’t yet do: no camera., no support for some Web video files, and no ability to run applications simultaneously.

MAN: It’s not really a full computer device at this point. You know, it’s more of a — kind of like a Kindle on steroids.

WOMAN: I’m going to hold off. I’m going to hold off, because I just got the iPhone. Maybe next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: A number of other new tablet computers are set to be released this year, so the iPad will soon face plenty of competition. Still, analysts expect Apple’s version will sell more than one million units in its first three months.

More on the new tablets and the future of computing now from Walt Mossberg, personal technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He’s the co-executive editor of the Web site All Things Digital. And Paul Saffo, a writer and technology forecaster in Silicon Valley, he’s also a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

Walt Mossberg, first, tell us more about what this is, what it is intended to be.

WALT MOSSBERG, personal technology columnist, The Wall Street Journal: Well, Jeff, it’s really a new kind of portable computer. When we think of a portable computer, we typically today think of a laptop. And those aren’t going away.

This is something that’s been imagined by people in the computer business for years, never taken off. But this is a full, robust computer. It doesn’t have every capability of a laptop, but it is much more than a read — e-reader, much more than a big iPhone.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the early reviews, yours included, suggest it does a lot of things really well, and some things, you’re still not sure about?

WALT MOSSBERG: Yes. I think the biggest disappointment, as was mentioned in the intro, is there’s no Webcam. It would be a perfect thing for videoconferencing, if it had that. It’s not to say they couldn’t add it later.

Multitasking, which means the ability to do more than one thing at once, like you can on a computer, is not, at least yet, on here. And there are a number of other things you — you wish it could do. But, on the other hand, it does run a full-blown word processor, a full-blown spreadsheet, a full-blown presentation program that Apple rewrote from the ground up from their computer version to run on touch.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Paul Saffo, a lot of talk here in early days about this notion of being a game-changer, whether this somehow changes the game. But what — what game are we talking about?

PAUL SAFFO, Stanford University: Well, you know, Apple is a company with a history of delivering big new media paradigms that go on to create new sectors.

They did it in ’84 with the Macintosh, which gave us Windows computing. A little over 10 years ago, they did it with MP3 and music and the iPod. Five years ago, they did it with the iPhone.

I think this is at least comparable in size to those, where what they have done is, they have legitimated a whole new space of a device that’s not just personal; it’s intimate. You know, you can carry this and two bags of groceries. And it’s a media tablet. It’s not a laptop without a keyboard. It’s an entirely new kind of device that is — it’s — you know, it’s just the start, but it is the opening shot in what’s going to grow very quickly into a substantial industry.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are — staying with you, Paul, there are other tablets that have been introduced. We saw that person in our little clip saying, I just got my iPhone.

I, mean part of the trick here is that Apple or any company doing this has to convince consumers that they need one more gadget, right?

PAUL SAFFO: That’s right. Early on, this is one more gadget.

But the important thing is that it’s Apple doing the introduction. And this is a company that has lots of true believers, because they have a track record of delivering truly new things. And I think that gives this sector a real boost. It’s actually very good for Apple’s competition, as well as Apple.

JEFFREY BROWN: Walt, how do you see this sort of notion of game-change? What — for those — explain to people, what do we mean by the game? And what’s changing?

WALT MOSSBERG: Well, the game — the game is the game of portable computing, not the game of being the Kindle e-reader, which does essentially one thing, but the game of portable computing.

And I would only say I agree with Paul that — but I would be slightly more cautious. I think it is a potential game-changer. And why do I say potential, Jeff? Because I think, if people perceive it as one more thing to carry, if most people perceive it as just a third thing to carry, it won’t have as much appeal as it could be.

I think people have to perceive it as something that allows them to leave their laptop home or not open it around the house for, you know, maybe not 100 percent of the things they do on their laptop, but for more than half a lot of the time. I know those are vague terms, but that’s the way I kind of think about it.

So, if you use your laptop for mostly surfing the Web, consuming media, you know, doing e-mail, and then doing maybe a little light content creation, say, a school paper or something, and you decide that you’re comfortable doing it on this, this thing will take off the way Paul says.

And if not enough people feel that way, and just think it’s an extra burden to carry, then I — that’s the risk Apple is taking. But, as he points out, Apple is a little different than some of these other companies. It takes really big risks. And many of them that he listed have paid off. A few haven’t. And we’re going to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is it — Paul Saffo, why does Apple get so much attention? And I — here we are looking at this ourselves, I know. But is it because of this history of taking risks? Is it also — I guess they’re great marketers as well, too.

PAUL SAFFO: They’re hitting on all cylinders. They have a demonstrated history of delivering revolutionary technologies.

Their marketing is brilliant, all the way down to making sure they heard lots of donuts to give out on Saturday to people waiting in line. But it also comes down to design. There’s something about Apple that its devices are more than the sum of its parts.

And the way you can tell it in the next week or two is, people are going to discover that their iPad, even though it’s just the first machine and purely just for early-adopters — it’s not for the mainstream yet — they’re going to discover that it does as much for their sense of cool when the machine is off as when it’s actually on.

And there are not a lot of computers out there that do that that don’t have the Apple brand.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Walt Mossberg, I mentioned that there are others coming. What’s the gamble here for all these companies? They’re trying to — to figure — we have been talking about the way we as consumers use computers and the way content is delivered to us. So, what’s the gamble that companies now have to make in terms of coming up with a model for the future?

WALT MOSSBERG: Well, let me — to be fair, because we don’t want to just be a commercial for Apple, Dell, H.P., Lenovo, and numerous others that are primarily identified with Windows computing are coming out with tablets.

A few of them will actually run Windows controlled by finger touch. Others will run Linux, and some will run Android, which is the Google operating system for smartphones.

The gamble they’re taking, Jeff, is that they can come up with something that has a simple user interface, which this does — this has the same user interface as the iPhone, which has caught on very well — but, underneath, once you use that simple interface, you actually get more capability and sophistication than you get on a smartphone. That’s one.

And the other gamble they’re taking is that they don’t cannibalize their laptop sales, because Paul is right that this is just the beginning, but, if this does — if this trend does catch on, some people are going to say, I’m not going to buy that netbook, which is a cheap laptop. I’m not going to buy the next laptop. I will stay with my old laptop and I’m going to go with the tablet.

So, balancing — they have a lot of business decisions about pricing and margins and that sort of thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Paul, real briefly, I mean, they’re also — Google is out there with another model we’re waiting on to — more of a Web-based model, right? So, there’s a lot more to come here.

PAUL SAFFO: Huge. This is a wide-open field. Apple’s legitimated it, but the days are early. And there are lots of companies in the space. And we’re going to see lots of fights between the companies, to the benefit of the consumers.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Paul Saffo and Walt Mossberg, thank you both very much.