So Steve Jobs finally unveiled the iPad today. Sounds and looks cool. My 13-year-old daughter would certainly like to have one.
But is it good enough? I see a dark horse looming on the horizon. Google has yet to enter the Netbook race, and this company is a thoroughbred.
For the iPad, Ars Technica has the best description I've seen so far.
access to iTunes media, including HD video content, calendars, photos, contacts, and more. The built-in e-mail client also looks like a hybrid between Mail on the Mac and Mail on the iPhone.
At $499 to $699 it's a good price, competitive with netbooks, a departure from Apple's usual pricey strategy. It seems to be a combination netbook, iPod, iPhone, book reader. WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G modem. Hard to say if that's a real killer category until we get a chance to try it out.
There is a lot of competition in netbooks, of course. But an over-confident Steve Jobs may be replaying a losing strategy he perfected a generation before in the computer biz. The Mac was always a great machine, but it came in second behind Windows, by about three-quarters the length of the racetrack.
Will this be a repeat of the PC vs. Mac story of a generation before? This time, Google will be playing Microsoft while Apple plays the role of Apple. Again. Sorry, Steve, but Microsoft won that war. This time Microsoft seems too preoccupied worrying about Google to take on Apple.
Here's where the old strategy gets repeated:
Jobs is dictating what he thinks is best for us. He's betting on a touch screen rather than a keyboard. He says it's great to type on, but as a writer, I'm skeptical. You just can't touch-type on a screen. That leaves Google an opening for differentiation.
He's powered the iPad with an Apple-designed chip called the A4. Jobs has tried that proprietary-chip strategy before, and finally gave up by switching to Intel chips. A one-product chipset just can't keep up with advances or price. Another opportunity for Google.
Jobs thinks he can dominate with a proprietary design that's incompatible with everything else in the world because, well, because he managed to do that with the iPod and the iPhone. But those were clearly vastly superior designs. The original Mac was, too, but its lead did not last. Compatibility became too important. Windows, a cheap clone of the Mac OS, took over the vast majority of the market.
And the smart phone race ain't over yet. Google's Nexus One is the most highly anticipated contender to the iPhone. More open, on more wireless networks, open to more apps without telling us which apps we have to use for major functions. (I'll be interested to see if Google lets us use Bing as well as Google search, though.)
Google is also working on a netbook with a keyboard, Intel chips and Chrome OS. It will be available from many manufacturers, which will drive down prices, just like the old PC wars.
A TechCrunch article has the speculation about the Google netbook. A Wired article has some supposedly leaked specs and a photo.
The Android OS is being used in handsets from many different manufacturers, and the same will be true for the Chrome OS and netbooks. That raises the old compatibility issues that we saw in the early days of the PC -- both good and bad. Stability will be harder with Chrome, but there will be more apps -- eventually.
A negative for Google is that it seems intent on designing and branding its own handset and netbook, putting it in competition with companies that license its products. But what good alternative standard do the licensees have? A good opportunity for something like RIM's Blackberry. Just need more pizazz.
The other negative is that Google's netbook is not likely to be out until near the end of this year, giving the iPad a head start. But Apple always enjoys that advantage. Google will have a chance to examine what works and what doesn't for the iPad in the meantime. I'll bet that about 99 percent of Google's engineers will own an iPad very soon.
So who will win this one? Not sure yet. Steve Jobs is brilliant. Just the fact that Google is the new Microsoft while Apple is the new Apple attests to his staying power and superior design. But he also has a Lake Superior-sized ego, and thinks he can control everything and do everything better than everybody else. Hence, his top-to-bottom proprietary design strategy.
It's interesting to note that the entire computer industry -- except Apple -- abandoned that approach years ago. Steve's testament is that he's the only one who CAN survive with that strategy. But he also leaves a lot of room for others.
And maybe that's enough for him. He's famous, he's rich, he's considered the best designer in the world, the Porsche of consumer electronics. Cool. Go for it.
Apple Investors, at least, were medium-whelmed by the iPad announcement. The stock first dropped, then recovered when the low price was announced, closing up by about 1 percent for the day. Interestingly, Google's stock followed Apple's pattern, but didn't vary as widely. Google ended up flat for the day.
You can compare their stocks here.