It's Too Early for an iPad Backlash

Critics anxious to put down the latest device from Apple are missing the point.

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In a widely retweeted comment, Wesley Chan, an investment partner on Google Ventures, wrote on Saturday that he was "very underwhelmed by the iPad [he] bought today. That said, 300 other people also waited to buy an oversized iPhone that can't make calls."

Similarly, Jeff Jarvis, new-media supercritic and author of What Would Google Do? wrote on Sunday, "After having slept with her (Ms. iPad), I am having morning-after regrets. Sweet and cute but shallow and vapid.

Later on Sunday morning, this led to an article on the Silicon Alley Insider, "The iPad Backlash Begins," that compiled about a dozen critical tweets.

But the iPad backlashers are jumping the gun.

Any computer is only as good as its software. Without what the tech world calls a "killer app" or an extremely compelling application for the device, it's hard to know what it's good for. Though the iPad runs most of the 150,000 iPhone apps, very few have been customized to run on the iPad's larger screen. The iPad App Store launched a little more than a week ago. By last count, there were only about 3,000 iPad-specific apps. And even those that have been launched are mostly new releases that developers had to build without access to actual iPad hardware. As a result, there simply aren't that many great applications that specifically take advantage of iPad's strengths.

That said, the iPad section of Apple's iTunes App Store is rapidly filling up with new programs, some of them exceptionally good. For example, last Wednesday on The Root, I complained about the difficulty of loading a PDF onto the iPad. By Saturday, a program called Papers appeared in the App Store and, with just a few clicks, I loaded more than 300 academic articles in PDF format into my iPad and was happily browsing complicated scientific documents that would not have worked well on any e-reader without color, a large screen and a fast processor. While Papers already existed for iPhones and iPod Touches, the small screen made reading PDF documents nearly impossible. For the academic market, in which reading a huge number of PDFs is a professional obligation, a program like Papers is a killer app. It's easy to imagine the iPad will have similar appeal to other document-laden professionals like lawyers or Hollywood agents.  In response to a tweet of mine praising Papers, Julia H. Grace, a social computing researcher at IBM, replied that this was the "first persuasive iPad [argument] I've heard." iPad backlashers should heed Grace's open-mindedness because more killer apps will arrive daily.

While wonks reading PDFs might not sound like much of a market, note the plural. That's killer apps. The iPad will succeed by thriving in many different markets. Like any successful computing platform, different people will come to rely on it for very different uses. I wrote on Friday at The Root that I thought interactive books on the iPad would be a big hit with kids and parents. Kids will love books that read themselves and have engaging visuals. Parents will love an entertaining but educational alternative to plopping kids in front of the TV. This niche market doesn't justify the iPad media frenzy, but it's the sort of innovative new business that probably wouldn't have been possible without the iPad's combination of hardware, software and a super-convenient marketplace.

In classic techie fashion, Kmiec complains about all the specs the iPad lacks: "No USB, no camera, no replaceable battery, no ability to create content and heck no cleaning cloth." As a computer professional, Kmiec seems oblivious to the idea that a simpler computer might be a benefit to many less-techie consumers. Posing the killer-app question, Kmiec asks, "What need does the iPad deliver on? What consumer problem does it solve? The answer to both is nothing ... unless of course you're a 3 year old."

Well, even if you agree with Kmiec, there are a lot of 3-year-olds in the world, and many of them have parents who can afford a $500 iPad. I'm betting a lot of those parents will be thrilled to see their kids reading interactive books and playing with high-quality educational software. Kmiec may not see it, but his daughter's love affair with the iPad bodes enormously well for its future success. A device that can appeal to both Ph.D.s and 3-year-olds is probably off to a strong start. Throw gamers, book lovers, news junkies, movie fans and digital photo buffs into the mix, and it's not hard to see how Apple will have a hit. There will be multiple killer apps for the iPad though it may take time for all us to fully appreciate this fact.

That the iPad is a specialized and simpler computer seems to offend techies. Like some sort of threatened elite priesthood, Kmiec and others mock iPad enthusiasts as simple-minded or childlike. But a computer that might broaden the appeal of the PC and bring the benefits of the net to more folks should be welcomed. Not all devices should work like jackknives and attempt to solve every task. Depending on the meal, a steak knife or a butter knife might be better than a multitool. Long-time tech journalist Robert Scoble captured this logic when he flipped the script on Kmiec and tweeted on Monday morning, "My TV doesn't support Flash. Doesn't have a camera. No API's. No multitasking. WORTHLESS toy for three year olds!"

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