Why the iPad Succeeds

MG Siegler recently opined that the reason Android is having some success against the iPhone but little against the iPad is because of support from mobile carriers. John Gruber linked to Siegler’s piece, adding:

My hypothesis has long been that Android has very little traction in and of itself. What has traction is the traditional pattern where customers go to their existing carrier’s retail store to buy a new phone, listen to the recommendations of the sales staff, and buy one of the recommended phones… There is no such traction for the idea of going into your phone carrier store and buying a computer. That’s why carrier-subsidized netbooks didn’t take off, and that’s why carrier-subsidized Android tablets haven’t either.

I don’t disagree with the idea that the sales dynamics for phones and tablets are different, but I’d come at it from a different angle. The reason the iPad is so dominant in the tablet space is precisely because of the biggest criticism it got before launch. Nobody needs one.

Everyone these days needs a mobile phone. In fact, most people need one that can also do email and Facebook as well. This is true of people who don’t have much interest in phones, or technology in general. It’s even true of people who actively dislike their phones. Having a smart phone is the price of living in modern society.

Nobody needs a tablet. You’re not excluded from modern society if you don’t have one. If you actively dislike using a tablet, then you won’t use one.

When I was interviewing at Apple, there was one thing that one of the senior engineers in the iOS group said to me that I’ll never forget. We were talking about how management and engineering work together, and he was telling me that sometimes it goes wrong:

…so we were working on what became MobileMe, and management came up with a set of features, and everyone knew that they could be implemented, and we did our best to implement them. But when we gave what we built to users, they weren’t delighted. It was a problem. Management wasn’t happy, and engineering wasn’t proud of the product, and everyone was trying to figure out what went wrong…

I don’t think that phrase—“[users] weren’t delighted”—would have come out of the mouth of an engineer at any other company. It wasn’t meant as a euphemism; his entire point was that the product was good but not great, and that the company couldn’t figure out how a network synchronization system could delight users, no matter how well it was implemented. When I mentioned his phrasing later this engineer claimed he hadn’t realized he’d said those words. He didn’t even see why they might sound odd. In his world, success was measured by user delight. Everything else was a side note.

The point is that more than any other technology product I’ve ever seen, the success of the iPad stems from user delight. Other products from PCs to laptops to digital cameras to mobile phones have solid practical justifications behind them. I have no doubt that we’ll get there with tablets—someday a tablet will be as indispensable as a laptop—but that’s not the situation today.

I’ve only played with display models of Android tablets in stores for a few minutes at a time, and I haven’t tried the newest batch running the latest software version, but the big difference between Android and iOS for me is that Android has never made me grin. Even if an Android tablet were as good for web browsing and email and reading as an iPad, I still don’t think it would crack today’s market. If you want somebody to slap down $500 for a gadget they know they don’t really need, you have to make them grin.

Postscript

I think this model also offers a useful way to look at Amazon’s Kindle. I don’t think the hardware or software have put many grins on many faces, but the e-reader market has had practical selling points from the start. Amazon isn’t going after user delight; they’re just trying to suck less.