When Apple released the iPad Mini a year ago, I wrote that the Mini wasn’t just a secondary option to the main iPad, but it is the iPad. What I meant is that the Mini fulfilled much of the original iPad’s vision better than it or any of its full-sized successors did. Because the Mini was so much lighter and so much easier to hold, the Mini was not only more enjoyable to use while sitting down on the couch or in bed, but opened up contexts that the full-sized iPad’s size and weight didn’t allow. The iPad’s promise was powerful computing available to you in something you could comfortably hold in your hands, and the Mini fully delivered on it.
With this year’s full-sized iPad, though, the line between the two devices blurred. It’s still discernible, but it’s murkier. The iPad Mini is still superior for reading since it’s lighter, but the difference has narrowed considerably. Forget how many grams each device is; the iPad Air is quite comfortable to hold one-handed. Not as nice as the Mini, but nice.
The Mini narrowed the performance and capability gap as well. The Mini now runs the ridiculously fast A7 processor, same as the iPad Air and iPhone 5S. For many people, the Mini is big enough to write on as well, or make presentations in Keynote. The full-sized iPad is still superior for those tasks, and is especially superior for tasks like sketching which benefit from a larger screen, but the difference really isn’t that large. They are both quite capable devices for whatever task people want to use them for. The comparison is much more akin to a 13-inch Macbook versus a 15-inch than it is to an iPhone versus an iPad.
Which begs the question: where is the iPad going? More specifically, where are iPad applications going?
The original iPad was released in 2010 with the full iWork suite, and along with the iPad 2 in 2011, Apple released Garageband and iMovie as well. Garageband in particular feels like the high water mark for creative applications on the iPad. Not only was Garageband incredibly powerful and feature-deep, but it felt like it was made for the iPad all along.
There are many other applications that are powerful in different ways as well. Paper is a wonderfully simple application, but is capable of remarkably beautiful and intricate work (Paper’s Tumblr makes that clear). Editorial is a well-constructed text editor that is, in some ways, superior to desktop-based text editors. Djay is, appropriately, a DJ application that could only exist on the iPad. And on and on.
I think, though, that we’re beginning to see diminishing returns for increasing the capabilities of existing iPad applications or pushing it into new spaces. Generally speaking, while iPad hardware is dramatically faster and more capable than it was in 2010 (or even last year), applications haven’t increased at anywhere near the same pace. There are a number of obvious reasons for that, of course; faster hardware doesn’t necessarily imply that software—which is dependent on many things, but is especially dependent on good ideas and demand for them—will advance at a similar pace.
But there’s another reason: iOS still hews closely to the one-app-at-a-time, app-as-silo concept that began with the iPhone in 2007. For some purposes, this actually makes the iPad a better tool than the PC; the iPad’s limited ability to multitask makes it easier to focus on writing or other focused tasks like sketching. But it also significantly constrains what’s possible on the device. Writing an email or article that references a website or note, or doing any work that requires looking at one application’s content while working in another, requires flipping back and forth between applications, which makes for an excellent test of patience. And there is virtually no support for allowing two applications to work together on a single task by passing data between them.
Many people have suggested that renaming the iPad the “iPad Air” sets the stage for an iPad Pro, presumably with a larger screen. It’s difficult to disagree with that, but I don’t think an iPad with merely a larger screen would justify a “pro” moniker. The difference between what it is capable of and what the iPad Air is capable of would be fairly small; it would be better at sketching, but not much else. But where it would make sense is if the one-app-at-a-time model is relaxed. Using two applications on screen at once, a la Microsoft’s Metro, would certainly benefit from a larger screen. And building support for allowing applications to work together on tasks and share their data would justify the new name that much more as well.
While conceptually these two changes are fairly simple (I wrote about what applications working together could look like last year), the details are always where it gets difficult. How do you enter “split-screen” mode? How do you get out? What affordances do you provide to users so they understand what’s going on? Do you allow the user to drag content back and forth between applications (I’d hope so!)? How do you indicate what can and can’t be dragged? How do you implement the API to do so? And so on. None of it is easy. It’s inherently complex, and while we all want iOS to become more powerful, these changes are fundamental to iOS’s conceptual design, and a wrong move could endanger what’s made iOS so convincing in the first place: its simplicity.
Nonetheless, if iOS and the iPad are going to continue to progress and become more capable, then these sorts of changes are inevitable. That’s (generally) where we’re going. The rest is details. It’s also, coincidentally, where most of the work is.
Today, Nest announced their first new product since the Nest thermostat—Nest Protect. Nest Protect is a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm.
For an excellent look at Nest Protect, and profile of why they made it and the design process, you should read Stephen Levy’s piece for Wired.
…Wait, what? A smoke alarm?
Yes. Nest’s latest product is a $130 smoke alarm.
Nest’s basic strategy should be obvious now: take things we use in our daily lives but don’t at all enjoy using, or actively abhor using, and think through them so that they’re both better devices and delightful to own and use. (It’s also worth noting that they’re choosing product categories that are very large and universally needed.)
It’s more than that, though. The Nest thermostat and Nest Protect are standalone devices, but they work together. If you have a Nest thermostat and smoke alarms installed in your home, the smoke alarms will inform the thermostat when there’s movement in the home—which should make the Nest thermostat’s “Auto-Away” feature much more accurate, and thus able to be that much more efficient with a home’s energy use.
But what’s even more illuminating for what Nest’s vision is, though, is that if a Nest smoke alarm senses carbon monoxide, it will tell the thermostat to turn off the home’s furnace, which is a likely cause of carbon monoxide poisoning.
That’s truly smart. Nest has not only built two devices that work together to efficiently manage your home’s energy and protect you from fire, but they’ve created two devices that can actively judge the situation and work together to intervene in your home to keep you safe.
We’ve been hearing about the “smart home” for a very long time now, but this is the first time we’re legitimately there. Tony Fadell seemed to confirm this as Nest’s intent while talking with Stephen Levy:
In other words, Nest isn’t only about beautifying the thermostat or adding features to the lowly smoke detector. “We’re about creating the conscious home,” Fadell says. “To take a truly important device that has had no great innovation and make that device really, really great.” Left unsaid is a grander vision, with even bigger implications: many devices sensing the environment, talking to one another, and doing our bidding unprompted.
That’s a grand dream, and I think the Nest Protect—ostensibly just a smoke alarm—is going to be a key cog within their plan. Think about it: it’s not just a smoke alarm, but an Internet-connected computer with sophisticated sensors and software in every bedroom and on every floor. It knows when you wake up (since it has a motion-tracking sensor), when you go to bed, and even when you get up in the middle of the night. Along with the Nest thermostat, they also know when you leave for the day and when you get home. There’s a lot of immediate information there to begin doing some incredible things, and it’s something that could serve as a platform for all kinds of other services as well.
So yes, it is “just” a smoke alarm. And a very good one. But I think it’s also a piece of a much larger plan: make products that are so good that they can stand on their own and you’ll have to have them, but also work together to create something we’ve never seen before.
In an excellent interview with Business Week, Tim Cook explained their thinking for the iPhone 5C:
We never had an objective to sell a low-cost phone. Our primary objective is to sell a great phone and provide a great experience, and we figured out a way to do it at a lower cost. Therefore, we can pass that on. And we figured out a way to sell 4S at substantially less than we were selling it for before, and we’re passing it on. So we think there will be a lot more people in our tent, and we can really serve a lot more people. And that feels good.
The iPhone 5C is fascinating to me because nearly everyone—including John Gruber—got it wrong: it isn’t a “cheap” iPhone. Rather, it’s something that’s both much more obvious and surprising.
Implicit in the idea that Apple should release a cheaper iPhone is that it would be a secondary model for people who want an affordable prepaid iPhone and for international markets; that is, an implicit assumption was that the iPhone/iPhone 5S would remain the mainstream iPhone. That isn’t what Apple is doing with the iPhone 5C.
Instead, Apple has taken the strategy they’ve followed since releasing the iPhone 4—take last year’s model and make it available at $99—and created a distinct product from it, and made it the mainstream iPhone.
Rather than move the iPhone down market with the iPhone 5C, Apple moved the “regular” iPhone—this year, the iPhone 5S—up market to become the pro version, and establish the iPhone 5C as the “regular” iPhone. The iPhone 5C is now the iPhone that really is good enough for everyone. The A6 processor is fast, so is LTE, and the iPhone 5′s camera is very, very good. The colors lend it a feeling of accessibility, too; it feels less serious than the iPhone 5′s aluminum design, more fun, and the colors allow for a greater feeling of personalization and whimsy. (The cases only amplify that, misplaced circles aside.) It’s a very good phone at a reasonable $99 price-point, and it’s going to look much better in the store to potential customers than last year’s iPhone model did.1
Apple’s marketing certainly seems to be trumpeting this, too. Apple’s home page features the iPhone 5C, not the 5S, and it’s playing heavily on the 5C’s colors. They featured an iPhone 5C ad, not one for the 5S. Tim Cook and Phil Schiller referred to the iPhone 5S as Apple’s most “forward-looking” iPhone yet. Apple is positioning the iPhone 5C as Apple’s iPhone for everyone, and the iPhone 5S for people who want the best.
That makes some sense on the face of it; it allows Apple to sell a “new” iPhone at $99 with 16GB of storage, but with lower cost of goods sold, which means they can maintain their margin. It may also allow Apple to push the envelope a bit more at the top end because they no longer need to manufacture enough iPhone 5Ss to satisfy nearly everyone purchasing a new iPhone at launch. But if the iPhone is under mortal threat from low-end, commodity Android-powered smartphones, then this decision seems bizarre. It won’t compete with those devices. The iPhone 5C is cheaper, but it’s not much cheaper.
But it starts to make a lot of sense if you think that smartphones aren’t so far along that the low-end, cheap models are good enough compared to the iPhone. If Apple can still provide superior hardware and software that, combined, make for a genuinely better device that is palpable for regular customers, then Apple has no need to bloody itself in the low-end washer machine.
And that’s exactly what Apple seems to think. Tim Cook explains what he thinks makes Apple so special, and what makes this strategy possible:
You look at innovation like the iPhone’s camera and the detail that went into the camera. Most people hear the word camera, and they think of hardware. And hardware is really important to it, you know? With the stuff we did with the flash on this. But it’s software, and it’s the silicon—I mean, it’s everything.
So the way I think about Apple is that the magic of this place really comes up at its best when hardware, software, and services come together. And it’s sort of the intersection of those things is where things get incredibly magical. So facilitating that to happen and getting the collaboration level for that to happen is the magic here.
And one of my proudest moments is when other people see that. They don’t know that they’re seeing that, and that’s also the beauty. They don’t have to do it. But look at these (gesturing to iPhones). These are perfect examples where the hardware and the software and the service begin to blend. In some ways you don’t tell one from the other.
The iPhone’s camera is the perfect example of what Cook is arguing. The iPhone’s camera—a cellphone camera!—is now so good that many people have nearly no need for a dedicated point-and-shoot camera. This is only true, though, because Apple has focused on developing the camera in a way that can’t be captured so well on a specification sheet but really does make for a better camera. Rather than boost their sensor’s megapixel count, Apple has kept it steady at 8 megapixels for three iPhone models, and instead has boosted the sensor’s size. They’ve focused on doing rather incredible things with the iPhone’s Image Signal Processor to make for, and choose, better photos. While these things don’t translate well to selling points for cell carrier sales associates, it does make for a truly better camera, and customers do notice the difference. As a result, the iPhone feels like a device in a class of its own.
The obvious choice was to make a more affordable iPhone. I don’t think Apple is religiously opposed to making a cheaper iPhone, but they will only do so if they can make a convincing product. What Cook is saying is that making truly good products comes first. Eventually, I believe, Apple will do exactly that. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the iPhone 5C is highly reminiscent of my first Apple product, and one of my favorite devices ever: the iPod Mini. The iPod Mini had less storage than even the third-generation iPod (10GB versus the Mini’s 4GB), and wasn’t that much cheaper than the third-generation iPod ($299 versus $249), either. Critics at the time were perplexed; if Apple was going to make a lower-end iPod to compete with more affordable competing devices, the iPod Mini certainly wasn’t it.
But it didn’t matter, because it was a damned good product. For me (as a high school student at the time), the lower price finally made it attainable, and the colors were fun in a way the regular iPod never was. The iPod Mini was incredibly successful, and it wasn’t the end; Apple replaced it with the iPod Nano in 2005 at lower prices, and introduced the iPod Shuffle—a completely different kind of music player—in 2005 as well at even lower prices.
I think the iPhone will follow precisely the same path. That is, I believe Apple will build some kind of “iPhone” product for the low-end eventually, but it may not look like an iPhone at all.2
In that sense, what Apple did was incredibly obvious: it’s what they’ve been doing since Steve Jobs returned to Apple. They don’t identify price-points and product attributes and then create a product to fill it, as most companies do. They create genuinely good, convincing products that solve real needs for people first.
If you’ve been concerned about where Apple is going under Tim Cook, this should be a sign that there’s nothing to be concerned about. Apple’s unrelenting focus on making truly great products is not only still there, but seems to be reinvigorated under Cook’s new management team.
There have been a lot of headlines lately with some variation of “Is Innovation Finished At Apple?” I believe the best may still be ahead of Apple.