Apple: Innovator or Hype Machine?

The verdict is still out on whether Apple’s iPad is just an oversized iPod Touch or truly something revolutionary.  At the 0260 Entrepreneur Conference at NYU last week several speakers, including Firstmark Capital’s Larry Lenihan and Union Square Ventures’ Albert Wenger, voiced their enthusiasm for the new device.  I, on the other hand, have been skeptical.  I noticed the recent popularity of netbooks and thought there might be a market for something even less clunky in the same vein.  Of course, the iPhone’s rapid adoption suggested that a touch device could be a great answer.  That is why I applauded Michael Arrington’s original mission with his failed CrunchPad, but after years of unsuccessful tablet gadgets, I started questioning their value.

The iPad, however, has me rethinking things once again.  With now over a million sold, the iPad does present some interesting potential.  I had for a long time been curious about who would win the home media center computing battle—a combination of WinTel, Netflix, Sling Media, Apple, etc.—and the more I think about it, a tablet seems to be a great answer to that dilemma.  Every family room could use a communal computer that looks neat on the coffee table and can plug into the HD TV without too many wires or frills, which the iPad or other tablets can eventually facilitate.  I also realize that on certain trips of shorter duration or of leisure I don’t want to carry my laptop, but I still want more than just what a Kindle-like E-reader can provide.

With all this obvious potential, then, why is it only now that the endless possibilities of tablets are being explored?  Tablets have been around for a while, but only now do we see a conscious effort by electronics providers to push the concept.  There are a slew of competitive offerings on the way.  Perhaps, the new excitement in this category just reinforces Apple’s pivotal role in technological innovation, which was reestablished with the introduction of the iPod.

Apple’s influence in defining electronics categories has spurred innovation.  The iPhone accelerated adoption of smart phones, forcing competitors to work on new handsets and mobile OS’s.  Yet, Apple also operates in a walled garden, meaning its products are self contained, not always playing nice with other software and hardware (lack of Adobe’s Flash being my biggest pet peeve on the iPhone).  The question then is:  does Apple’s dominant role sometimes hamper progress?

MP3’s were already being played on phones as Apple kept releasing newer versions of its ever popular iPod, but the phone and music player all-in-one concept didn’t seem to garner the attention it deserved.  The iPod’s marketing campaigns were just too effective for users to consider alternative MP3 players.  Then, the incredibly sleek design and UI of the iPhone left other smartphone makers playing catch up.  Through its App Store, the iPhone offered some openness as users were treated to games and software produced by third party developers.  Now, however, because the iPhone remains the sleekest handset on the market, users aren’t experiencing a lot of the advantageous aspects of other mobile OS’s such as Android (e.g., multitasking/background processing, open source, notifications).  I worry that Apple will control the potential of mobile devices on their own terms.  For one thing, I look forward to owning a phone some day that projects videos, but there might only be a push to provide this feature if Apple decides to do so.

With this latest iPad rollout, I wonder if the Apple brand has assumed too much power.  Can Apple just put its stamp on any consumer electronic device and succeed?  Is the next step an Apple HD TV that threatens Samsung and Sony?

I am clearly being overly dramatic.  Apple products probably deserve most of their popularity.  If the iPad does indeed reshape the way we think about computing once again, kudos to Apple.  For the time being, I’m not ready to completely buy into the hype just because this tablet has an apple tattoo on its back.

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