iDentity Crisis

29 01 2010

Allow me to digress from cars for a while, because this week something else has enveloped the attention of the populace.

And here it is.  The moment technology fans the world over have been perching on the edge of their faux-leather office chairs in anticipation of.  And it was with bated breath I watched the keynote speech myself, refusing to believe the hype.

As everyone in the circle of tech knows, Steve Jobs is the undisputed master of pre-sentations (as the Americans would say) and his verbal prelude to the secret new device was no exception in building palpable tension and intrigue.  This was slated as the third way, the middle ground between the rapidly-establishing markets of smartphones and laptops.  And here’s where my problem lies.

Parallels can be drawn with the automotive world at this point, because basically what Apple is hoping to achieve is to carve a new niche, albeit one that has existed for well over 10 years.  Mercedes has been dreaming up new segments of the market for years, with varied success: the CLS being the genesis of the saloon/coupé trend now popular with numerous manufacturers; the R-Class being the genesis of nothing at all.  Because it is a fifty-thousand pound potato.

As with every Apple product, the ingenuity is not with the existence of the product itself, but the way in which it delivers the goods, and how the user experience is redefined for ease of use, intuitive interfaces and most of all, style.  The iPad certainly seems to deliver on these fronts.  No other ‘tablet’ has the inherent desirability of the iPad, its tactility and aesthetic loveliness rivalled only by the other fruit in Apple’s basket.  But we expected that, didn’t we?  No-one who has been awake for the past decade or so would have any reservations about the design of a new piece of Cupertino kit.

Apple iPad

It will change your life. Somehow.

It is however a fourth prerequisite of a trail-blazer which presents the most immediate problems for the iPad: ability.  You see, the problem with bridging the gap between two established products is one of compromise.  It must bring together the very best elements of each, while simultaneously curtailing any inherent shortfalls of what is basically a fence-sitter.  The iPad cannot perform the most obligatory functions of a mobile phone (er, to make calls?), and due to its form factor must also forego the more demanding tasks of a full-blown computer, even one as technically limited as a laptop.  For example, it seemingly cannot multitask, a failing often voiced but equally overlooked about its smaller, older sibling, the iPhone.  But we can forgive the iPhone this; it is after all ‘just a phone’.  But a device which claims to break new ground by bringing together the very slickest elements of both sectors needs more punch.

This morning I watched yet another eulogy of Apple’s new sprog, in which the reviewer claimed that Apple’s biggest USP, and the feature which marks the iPad out as revolutionary, was the addition of a physical keyboard.  Now don’t get me wrong, this optional extra certainly has its uses, but to proclaim that a device’s single best asset is an admission that the included keyboard isn’t applicable for all situations is like selling someone a new car and then offering a bus pass on the options list.  Just in case.

The beautifully-designed carrying case (also a chargeable extra) doesn’t have the storage to hold this keyboard, nor the ugly adapter cables needed to complete iPad’s technical armoury.  This again is an oversight, and one which will certainly cause frustration among the early adopters.

It is of course very easy for me to sit here and blackball Apple’s attempted paragon of tablet worthiness, but I do so out of disappointment, mainly because it’s a product for which I have no practical need.  And that’s exactly the point of this niche-market game: to create a need; to generate such desire as to convince people like me to part with my hard-earned for something I had no idea I actually needed until it was presented to me.

It goes without saying that the iPad will be a huge success regardless of its technical shortcomings, and this in itself must have marketeers across the globe snapping their pencils in frustration.  Not only can this once left-field computer manufacturer cause the world to generate its own zenith of hype around a mere rumour, but even in the cold light of a seemingly sub-standard product they will continue to reap success based on the strength of their brand.  Money, it appears, grows on Apple trees.

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