Apple is on the verge of releasing the latest iteration in its operating system for the iPhone and iPad. Sometime in the coming months, it is also likely to bring out a newly beefed up version of the iPad. These may not seem like particularly momentous moments to anyone but the more die-hard Apple evangelists, but for me they have underlined the fact that this little tablet is heading for domination of the mobile computing industry.
Before you dismiss this as hype, I should emphasise that this conclusion has come only after some months of reflection, consideration and intense usage of an iPad, and comparison with its competitors. I was one of those fools who bought an iPad right at the beginning, when they were just out in the US and were yet to touch down in Britain. I picked it up in Washington, where I was attending the IMF’s summit, more out of hope and curiosity than an expectation that it would change my life. And the truth is I was initially rather disappointed.
I bought it wondering whether it would be the tool that meant I could throw away my laptop. And so I tried, over the following days, to use it as a journalistic tool – I tried to write articles on it (using the bluetooth keyboard – typing on the screen isn’t bad, but it isn’t brilliant), take notes with it, use it to read the IMF reports and send emails back home. It was an unmitigated disaster. I lost some of my most important notes because one of the applications kept crashing (this is not good news when you’re a journalist – and fellow hacks are, understandably, reluctant to share notes at the best of times); cutting and pasting text (quite important when you routinely have to edit and re-edit your articles) was fiddly; there wasn’t a word count in Pages, the main word processing application; you couldn’t switch between different applications (multi-tasking); you couldn’t search with PDF files (disastrous if you are trying to navigate a 300 page report on banking regulation), etc etc.
I never wrote this at the time (far too much going on with elections, expenses and whatnot), but my abiding feeling was that I had bought the iPad hoping to dispel all those people who said they couldn’t see the point of it – and I had come out agreeing with them. What was the point of this device? Not good enough to double as a laptop, not small enough to fit in your pocket, not easy-on-the-eye to read for long periods in the same way as a Kindle. Jack of all trades and master of none – or so I thought.
What I hadn’t realised was that this is pretty much the point. The iPad is a disruptive innovation. Disruption, for those of you who, like me until recently, aren’t familiar with business theory, is one of the ways companies upend their bigger and older competitors in business these days. The gist is as follows: when a business comes along with an innovative product that challenges an existing one, it is often cheaper, of lower quality and is often deemed “not good enough” by potential customers.
Think of mp3s – their sound quality is far inferior to CDs, but customers realised pretty soon that they were both cheaper, more convenient and of a just about satisfactory quality. When personal computers first arrived, those who built powerful mainframe room-sized computers dismissed them as incapable – and indeed they were often so slow that they couldn’t keep up with the people typing into them. But the point behind disruption is that in due course the quality of the product gets to a standard that is acceptable to consumers (and if not better than the incumbent product, it is at least cheaper). Right now, flash memory is disrupting hard disks. And so on.
The graph below tells the story: sustaining technologies, such as hard disks, or dedicated digital cameras, improve over time, but eventually reach a standard beyond what most consumers, and perhaps even high end users are after. Into the market comes the disrupting technology, for instance flash memory or cameraphones, whose qualities (be they size or picture quality) are initially well below the standards of the sustaining technology but are compensated by their cheaper price or added convenience. Sometimes a whole new range of customers enters the market at this lower price/quality point. Eventually the quality of the disrupting product can surpass the old sustaining one.
The iPad is disruptive to notebook computers: in its first iterations it doesn’t meet the exacting standards that many computer users have, so it is not an obvious replacement. It wasn’t good enough for me as a journalist; or indeed for anyone who wants to use their laptop for photo manipulation, DJing, game playing and so on. But it is good enough for many others.
It is good enough for students, for instance. Since returning to college, I have found myself using the iPad more and more. It is smaller than the laptop, I can use it to read as well as take notes and write. It still isn’t brilliant for article editing, but it more or less does the job (and given I don’t have to pump out articles at the rate I did as a professional journalist, so be it). I produced this blog (and indeed have written almost all of my recent blogs, papers, essays and all the stuff one needs to produce at college) on it. A couple of weeks ago my laptop spontaneously combusted. It didn’t matter, because by then I hadn’t been using it for some months anyway.
The imminent update to the iOS takes the iPad one step forward. In comes multitasking, in comes midi support and a host of other upgrades that, gradually, remove more demanding customers’ resistance to shifting down the iPad. Then along will come the next iteration, with higher resolution and more power, making it less attractive, in comparison, to own a laptop, and so on and so on.
It isn’t just the iPad that’s doing the disruption; it looks increasingly as if Apple’s existing operating system, Mac OS, will soon be disrupted by its mobile OS, which has been inserted as a kind of trojan horse into the next update of Mac OS.
This is classic disruption, as laid out by Clay Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma. The interesting thing in this case is that usually the company that does the disrupting is quite independent from the one that gets disrupted. In this case, Apple is disrupting itself, which is quite an achievement for a giant company. The only question is whether they can keep it up.
This article originally appeared on telegraph.co.uk