I’m not much for speculation – when people guess about how a product will do I think there’s much more luck involved in being right than anyone admits. I wish all the futurists and prognosticators would keep a table of their bets, and honestly show how often they’re right or wrong. I think they’d be humbler in their bets if they saw their history.
That said, I’ve been asked again and again about my thoughts on the iPad. Rather than give a fairly useless bet, I’d rather teach a smarter way to look at new products and things.
A useful way to look at any new product is to do the following:
- Pretend all the marketing is true
- Assume many different kinds of people will buy it
- Now ask: where will the time people spend using the new thing come from?
This is what I (and probably others) have called displacement theory – or evaluating one thing by thinking about how it will displace/effect usage of other things. As we all have finite time, if something new that enters our world the time spent using it will come from somewhere. If people choose not to spend time with the iPad, even after purchasing it, it will fail. If they do use it, what will they be using it instead of?
This is an interesting exercise for designers and makers – it focuses you on people’s behavior, or how you imagine them behaving, rather than getting lost in the abstract wonders of devices and technologies are capable of, rather than what actual people will do with them (And the wise use techniques like ethnography to see what people actually do today, rather than surveys and focus groups where they merely say what they think they do, or what they think you want to hear) .
Think of all the kitchen / yard / tech gadgets people buy and never use – they failed to displace whatever else it was in those people’s lives they do with their time. They might have had interesting designs, but they were not sufficiently good to displace whatever else they use. Unless, say, it was an iFurnace, and it’s primary function is to work without human interaction.
For most of the people who buy an iPad in the first weeks, the time spent using it will come from time spent on laptops and possibly from books once its e-reader features are fully formed (Not to mention the endless demos they’ll do showing it off to their friends).
Industry analyst NPD listed the following stats based on their research into who might buy one:
- Income $100,000
- Age 18-34 (27% expressed interest in buying iPad — compared to 18% overall)
- Reason for Buying: Time among 18-34 between loyalty and multi-touch screen
- How They Will Use It: To play music or access the Internet
This isn’t a compelling list of reasons or statistics, and you’d have to read the full report to even have much faith on the accuracy of the data. But it suggests for the young and affluent the iPad is a tertiary device for accessing things they can access elsewhere.
Based on all this the success of the iPad will hinge on three factors:
- People’s willingness to by a third device for internet access (First two being PCs and phones). The iPhone and iPod were much easier to sell as they replaced existing products with mediocre designs (cell phones and digital music players were awful until Apple entered the fray). It’s not clear to most consumers what exactly the iPad will replace/displace. Much of this depends on the price point, and for now the iPad’s price and service are exclusively priced. Few people even at $100k in income are likely to bite. The problem to be solved is not as acute or tempting as it was for phones or music. There is a displacement price where the new thing is cheap enough to get people to quit spending time doing it the old way, and buy the new thing, assuming they believe it serves all the old needs and satisfies some new ones.
- Unique experience benefits that arise from the iPad over laptops or books. Many things are promised, but some simple things like not having to deal with laptop lids, which compared to books, have more ergonomic issues than books or magazines. PC laptops are notorious for unpredictable and annoying on/off/sleep behavior mostly because of lids. The convenience factors of an iPad on the couch while watching TV, or in the kitchen while cooking, might be some of the strongest user experience arguments. But it’s largely an argument of making passive experiences more convenient, rather than making a substantive improvement in quality of life – a very price sensitive place to be. For many it the choice to buy an iPad will compete against netbooks, cheap simple laptops. Until the price gap narrows, this won’t be a tough choice for most people.
- The iPad’s ability to influence what competitors do in this space. This can be done without strong sales, as just having a competitor to kindle or tablet computers changes the behavior of competitors( See Google’s Chrome browser, as it’s a similar case). Many people forget that sales are only one aspect of a successful product launch. If the launch forces competitors to change strategy, or allows for things to be learned for the next product, a “failed” product can be incredibly useful.
In the sense of the last point, the iPad has already been successful. It has already reshaped the conversation and forced every kindle user, or potential future kindle customer, to think differently about what their kindle is supposed to do, or not.
I’m a deliberate late adopter of most things – I care more about the content than the pipes they come on, so I don’t own a Kindle and am unlikely to buy an iPad. My life is pretty damn convenient at this point, so convenience rarely gets me to buy anything.
But I’m convinced these devices are the way of the future – there are too may good arguments for what web based devices can do for people who like to read, and as the price gets lower (would you buy one for $100? $50? $15?) the perception of positives (e.g. for travelers, one device that can carry 50 books is simpler than bringing 50 books) will outweigh the negatives for many people. We’ll always have books made from paper, but there will be fewer people using them in 20 years than there are now.