The iPad’s secret sauce: it’s the software, stupid

opinion “It’s a magical revolutionary device at an unbelievable price” waxed Apple CEO Steve Jobs as he unveiled the long-awaited iPad in January – possibly Apple’s worst-kept secret.

As I said in my previous opinion piece on the iPad “magical revolutionary” it is not – it is on a hardware level more-or-less just an oversized iPhone.

But you can’t deny that it has a certain “je ne sais quoi” that whispers “buy me buy me – you want me (even though you’re not quite sure why!)”

The answer to “why” lies partly in the “why not” – why nobody’s ever really been interested in tablet PCs in the past. The computer industry has tried for years without success to raise interest in touchscreen tablet PCs.

Bill Gates got it totally wrong – he infamously predicted they would be “the most popular form of PC sold in America” by 2006 – a spectacularly wrong estimation by any account.

The thing is tablet PCs running regular software like Windows and Office have never offered any benefit over regular PCs with a keyboard and mouse. In fact they offer a worse user experience. Former Microsoft Vice President Dick Brass who left the company in 2004 recently griped in the New York Times about Microsoft’s failure to make its software better on touch-screen tablet PCs concluding all they’d achieved was to make it “annoying clumsy and slow.”

Steve Jobs’ iPad on the other has a finely tuned set of advantages promising to replace a stack of dog-eared novels a traveler might have stuffed into their cabin baggage; the morning newspaper at the breakfast table; the monthly magazine on the bus; the puny web browser on your smartphone that you constantly zoom in and out of; your diary photo album and so on.

Put another way: the iPad is all about software. Forget the sleek form factor – that’s just a prerequisite. Ironically it’s the software and services that Microsoft never ‘got’ that Apple totally does get.

Steve Jobs figured out what Bill Gates didn’t: tablet computers aren’t about the computer; they’re about the combination of software totally designed around your fingertip and an internet book store on-demand TV network music/movie store and so on rolled into one ready-to-go-the-moment-you-switch-it-on package.

The iPad isn’t the only game in town; there will still be room in the marketplace for general purpose computers that can run Windows on a tablet (just as there is room in the market for Microsoft’s execrable Windows Mobile). But the battle in this new category of gadget is between a few key players in the industry who understand (and have the connections to deliver) an all-in-one package of slim device with long battery life always-connected services and high quality content at the right price. If Amazon can bring colour to the Kindle it has a good chance of competing against Apple; after all it already sells music and video online along with 330000 eBooks. But Apple’s total package ready to roll from April is going to be what ensures the iPad’s success.

I want one. Do you?