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Summary:

While our reader polls mainly indicated disappointed in Apple’s latest creation, there’s a big-picture question worth answering. Did Cupertino just pull a fast one and corner the smartbook market before anyone else could get that market off the ground?

iPad

What a crazy, hectic 48 hours it’s been. I almost feel exhausted by all of the Apple iPad news, analysis, polls and commentary that have flooded my system. If I had to peg the overall sentiment about Apple’s new product, I’d guess it to be two to one with the majority of folks disappointed. I can understand that due to the belief that Apple would exceed expectations. Honestly, I think they mostly met expectations — my basic predictions mainly came true. I never expected Apple to reinvent the Tablet PC and handwriting recognition on a slate, so perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel let down. Clearly, however, folks wanted more.

But if you step back from those “wants” and simply look at the device and the use case scenario, one could argue that Apple just introduced one of the first commercially available smartbooks to the masses. Did Cupertino just pull a fast one and corner the smartbook market before anyone else could get that market off the ground?

Let’s look at the loose definition of a smartbook for a second. Granted, this isn’t defined in stone, but I think most folks will agree with these characteristics. And for clarification, I’m taking much of list directly from Qualcomm’s Smartbook site, since they coined the term.

  • Instant-on access – smartbooks should wake up instantly and be ready to go.
  • 3G connectivity — mobile broadband allows for smartbook usage in places outside of the home and Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • Ultra-portable design — Qualcomm defines this as less than 20mm thick and under two pounds in weight.
  • All-day battery life — 8 to 10 hours on a charge with standby times of at least a week.
  • Built-in GPS — location is important and desirable for LBS.
  • Customizable interface — “intuitive, one-touch navigation to your favorite applications,” says Qualcomm.

So that’s how Qualcomm defines a smartbook. Of course, they make ARM processors which power smartphones today and smartbooks are essentially mobile devices that use the guts of a smartphone but on a bigger display. Having said all that, which attributes would you say don’t apply to the Apple iPad? I don’t see a single one — all of these smartbook characteristics are attributable by Apple’s newest mobile device.

My personal take on the device — after digesting the information over the past two days — is that the iPad is evolutionary and not revolutionary. Apple essentially evolved their iPhone ecosystem beyond handsets and into smartbooks. I’d even go out on a limb and say that every company with thoughts of entering the smartbook market is already fighting an uphill battle for three reasons.

  • Most consumers don’t yet know what a smartbook is. And yet Apple is ready to provide them one without even using the new device class name. In one fell swoop, they “reinvented” a market that was waiting to get started. One could even argue that the term “smartbook” won’t even take off if the iPad becomes a runaway success.
  • All of the smartbooks I’ve seen use very similar guts to power the device, but they all use different operating systems. And by different, I mean “unfamiliar” to your average mainstream audience. The iPad uses the easy recognizable iPhone operating system which tens of millions of consumers already recognize and use. Back in June, I said this of operating systems on smartbooks: “Linux is definitely capable for this type of device, but for your average consumer to use it on a device, it needs to be slick, intuitive and have a familiar feel to it.” Aside from the Linux reference, my statement applies fairly well to the iPhone OS, no?
  • Any smartbooks to hit the market now will be compared to the iPad. And if they don’t offer seamless media sync, intuitive interfaces that people understand and a wide array of software applications out of the box, they won’t compete well.

Summing up all three of those reasons indicates the challenges that smartbooks were — and still are — expected to face. Yet Apple has just leap-frogged right over those challenges and turned them into the strengths of their latest creation. For the first time that I can remember, Apple hasn’t waited for others to create a market with marginal products and then jump in with latest iWhatever that improves upon the failures of others. Instead, Cupertino leveraged a familiar mobile operating system, created their own silicon to power it and took it upon themselves to lead a market — all while others have futzed about for over a year trying to determine if such a market would even take shape. And here’s the ultimate irony — 12 months ago when I saw an early smartbook prototype, it was actually a tablet form factor; a convertible tablet, yes, but still a tablet.

I’ve said in the past that I’m actually an ideal candidate for a smartbook because I mainly need a decent web browser to use to consume information. All the apps that I’m already using on my iPhone are just the icing on the smartbook cake. When I look at the iPad in that light, it actually becomes appealing to me. But if you’re one of those that has already condemned the iPad, that’s OK. However, I think you’ll have to condemn the entire smartbook market by proxy too at this point.

  1. I’m not so sure because of one thing: the keyboard. It think it most compares to the netbook because of the same form factor. Those who type more and want a smaller on-the-go device may opt for a smartbook rather than a netbook. Plus, I see the iPad as more of a home device. There’s room for all of it but still see smartbooks as a niche device.

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  2. Well… it was a great piece up until: “However, I think you’ll have to condemn the entire smartbook market by proxy too at this point.”

    It made me think, that’s for sure. But c’mon. The iPad doesn’t multitask, doesn’t have USB ports… that statement is flat-out wrong. Anyone who thought “man, I’d buy it if only…” is fully entitled to hold off on praising something missing a feature they felt was needed.

    Personally, if it had the resolution you predicted and even just one USB port, I might talk myself into one… but I’m just as glad it doesn’t. I like my platforms open without having to hack them. :)

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    1. @Kevin: Up until about two hours ago, I would have agreed with you about the USB port. I’ve been thinking about this, though, and what I’m concluding is that we’ve been so conditioned by portable devices in the clamshell on-the-lap-or-desk format, where physical approaches to the device are limited, that we haven’t really considered the human interface problems of tablet connectivity.

      Imagine you’re designing an Apple tablet. You have two immediate and absolute constraints in terms of connectivity. First, you need a port for AC power/charging. Since you’d also like to maximize support for the existing iPod/iPhone attachment universe, we’ll make that a 30-pin connector. Second, you can’t assume that every user will have wireless headphones, so you need a headphone jack. The question now is: where can you place an additional connector so as to minimize interfering with handheld usage in every orientation while both of these connectors are also in use? Go ahead and try mocking it up with a piece of paper, if you like – the dimensions are close enough. You see what I’m getting at here? Laptops and the like have the luxury of a significant chunk of device real estate that the user is not expected to physically handle during use. Tablets don’t. Increasing ports can only compromise handheld functionality. Given this dilemma, Apple chose to keep the device as simple as possible and limit it to only its absolute connectivity requirements. I think this was actually a good choice: apart from a USB stick for storage, or maybe a 3G wireless modem, can anyone name a compelling USB peripheral for a completely handheld device? I can’t think of one, but I’m certainly willing to admit to failure of imagination. (An SD card slot would be a different story; I imagine we’ll see one of those in a 2.0 unit.)

      Integrated user-facing webcams have the same problem: there’s no place you can put a camera that permits effective use in all handheld orientations if you’re also using headphones and running on AC power. What makes much more sense is a wireless camera that you can clamp to the device in your preferred location, which incidentally will also allow both front- and rear-facing usage; expect to see those on the market before September or so.

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      1. I don’t think Apple will implement SD card in any following iPad’s just like it didn’t implement it in either of the three iPhone iterations. As for webcam, it’s easy solvable – upper left corner if you look it in portrait mode but yes it doesn’t have preferred orientation.. so that falls into water .. sort of and that is just a lame lame excuse (we won’t implement webcam because we don’t want to hamper your freedom in using iPad). :)

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      2. Umm landscape view not portrait… :)

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      3. @Patrick: Upper left corner in portrait mode is no good if you’ve got the device docked in landscape mode; the only way you can landscape-dock with all the physical controls accessible is to lay the device down on its left side (assuming that the home button is in the bottom center). Your camera is then in the bottom left corner, giving you a wonderful view up the chatter’s nose. (I realize there’s no landscape dock announced yet, but Apple is smart enough to consider the possible use cases; I expect a Lenovo U1-type dock within the year.) That’s actually a perfect illustration of the point I was trying to make. There’s an obvious place on a laptop for a webcam because the form factor dictates a limited number of possible approaches; that doesn’t work on an all-orientations handheld device. You have to strike a reasonable compromise between possible uses. I think Apple did a pretty good job; your mileage may vary.

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      4. @Patrick: upper-left landscape is a better suggestion, but I still think it has problems. I’d argue that the most natural orientation for holding the device in portrait mode if you’re using headphones is with the home button at the top, so that you get the maximum length from your headphone cable (the headphone jack is on the short side opposite the home button; this orientation puts the jack on the bottom of the device) and are less likely to press the home button by accident while shifting your grip on the iPad. That puts your upper-left landscape position in nostril-exploration position again. I’m not trying to pick on you; this is a difficult problem, and I think that Apple’s best solution is the one they chose: leave the hardwired camera off and let market demand for video chatting functionality drive wireless solutions. A Bluetooth or WiFi camera has the added bonus of lots of additional applications with this device (rear-phacing photography, for example), or with your laptop or desktop machine, for that matter.

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      5. You’re forgetting about all the third-party dock-adapter accessory makers. How long do you think it will be before belkin or somebody else comes out with a dock connector camera for the iPad? I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time. Problem solved.

        I think Kevin is right on the money that too many people are judging the iPad based on unrealistic expectations and long-formed computing habits which are now either outdated or inapplicable to this form of computing.

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    2. Oops, that should have been @Ricky. Sorry. =\

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  3. I also see the iPad as the Smartbook. The iPad extends from the iPhone, just like the Smartbook would extend from your mobile phone to do a little more than your mobile phone. This is great because I also at times only need web info on the go or just at home. With this kind of devices I can do that and more like quick email, some music, videos, and use it as digital picture frame. ;) I’m on the border whether to get one or not, but might at the end. At least I have 60 days to figure if I could really use the iPad or not, maybe I just get my Nexus One or both. :) Kevin what’s the percentage of you getting a iPad? Right now I’m about 40% and if it was availible the day it was announced, I would have pulled the trigger.

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  4. Only a few isolated geeks are going to adopt the “smartbook” term. Get over it. If it’s less than 10 inches, isn’t that failure? Where are the 7-9 inch netbooks? Dinosaurs for a reason. If it’s 10 inches, isn’t that a netbook? Take it out in public and…..sure, explain to people it’s a smartbook and not a netbook. People are in too deep with tech. Drowning in the terms and the politically correct term for each device. Lame.

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  5. “But if you’re one of those that has already condemned the iPad, that’s OK. However, I think you’ll have to condemn the entire smartbook market by proxy too at this point.”

    LOL don’t be silly Kevin.. USB ports, swappable batteries, card readers, PixelQi screens, multitasking OS’s(Android, Chrome, Moblin, Microsoft CE even Ubuntu), front and back cameras, stereo speakers, 1080p video out, stylus imput.. just few things iPad can pull it’s ears from shame .. oh and did i mention other tablets will be more probably than not a lot cheaper?

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  6. @patrick Please name one device, that has all the function you have just mentioned including its low price that is shipping right now….. lol i implore you to not be silly, by saying things you know nothing about or can prove right now. The wait continues….

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    1. @olawale

      “oh and did i mention other tablets –will– be more probably than not a lot cheaper?”

      There was a slew of tablets shown on this CES, for example Notion Ink tablet will have most of this options (Pixel Qi, 1080p output, etc).

      I can only say one thing: thank you Apple for setting the standards for thin 10″ tablets! :D

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      1. @Patrick: Yes, but none of them have come to market yet, so Apple has some lead time among general consumers in establishing mindshare. And even if the forthcoming devices are more technologically advanced than the iPad – and based on the available video, I’d say that the Notion Ink Adam more than meets that standard – they don’t have access to the same content and app ecosystem that the iPad has out of the box. Moreover, as I stated on another thread, until Google opens up its apps and the Android Market to non-phone devices, an Android tablet is going to be a difficult sell to general users, who will want and expect the same experience that’s available on Android smartphones. (To be fair, I fully expect Google to do this eventually, but the longer they delay, the more of a lead the iPad establishes.)

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      2. Have to agree on Android ecosystem but seeing the latest MSI tablet prototype there will be pretty soon a lot of high resolution 9 & 10″ Android tablets only thing missing will be appropriate high-res apps.

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  7. I gotta differ with your opinion here Kevin. In my mind smartbooks should fall in size between netbooks and smartphones. The iPad uses a 9.7 inch screen which makes it comparable, if not bigger, than some netbooks. It’s the old adage again – thin does not mean small.

    That size also impacts it’s practicality for GPS use. GPS means being portable, and at that large size I find it difficult for folks to use the device while walking/driving, unlike a smartphone which is easily handheld and slips in your pocket or clips to a dashboard for navigation. That’s not to say the iPad is useless for LBS apps that identify your static position, and the application base for the device is there from the get go.

    Apple’s gadget is more of an electronic clipboard, suited for non-typing activities, and is great if you need to use it while standing (unlike a netbook with keyboard which is best used at a desk). But I feel it is severely limited at that. Handwriting recognition on any slate device should be standard, and would open up applications of use tremendously.

    Walking around or sitting with it at home is one thing, but a true mobile device should work outside the confines of the home. In that respect I still feel the smartphone/netbook combo beats the iPad for productivity and mobility. $600 today easily buys you a smartphone and netbook, suitable for content creation, consumption, alongside flash support and USB connectivity. Never mind BT tethering for smartphones with data plans that avoid bandwidth caps.

    I would have to say the Sony Vaio P is a better form factor for the smartbook, and falls in size right between a smartphone and netbook. If Apple’s next iPhone were to include tethering as standard, come with a more powerful processor with more memory and features, I would consider mating that with a regular netbook instead of picking up the iPad.

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    1. Good opposing arguments, but most of them are predicated on your own expectations and definitions of smartbooks. I keyed off of Qualcomm’s — word for word — for my starting point. But let’s put both of those baselines aside and look at Lenovo’s Skylight, which is probably the most polished smartbook I saw at CES.

      It has a 10″ display, weighs under two pounds, is thin and the anticipated battery life is 10 hours. Sound familiar? Price is $499 unlocked and there isn’t a non-3G option that I’ve heard about. By your definitions, it doesn’t have a chance either. ;)

      I think there’s room for a smaller device like you described. Say something in the 6 to 7 inch range. I’ve even said I’d like to see clamshell smartbooks, similar to the Sony Vaio P. But for now, I don’t see much else on the horizon — and if there is, I still think Apple has a very strong foothold in this new market.

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      1. Sorry Kevin but this is not a new market, this is PMP market. Archos has already Archos 5 Android tablet, it’s not polished as iPad but Apple can lick Archos tablet boots with both in aesthetics & functionality. Never the less i hate the Archos PMP legacy with trying to sell you base ports just like Apple is doing for a long time.

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      2. No need to apologize — I didn’t create the market. ;) So you essentially see the iPad as a portable media player, then?

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      3. ;)

        No flash plugin for web browser + no (current) multitasking != either UMPC or true internet device. It has no camera, so again not an internet device (in this day of age, c’mon a tablet w/out a webcam.. be serious!! :D ). It’s not even a e-book reader although it want’s to be that too. Yes, people will mostly use it as a multimedia device but it lacks at all corners (no stereo built-in speakers, no HD output (not even 720p, just measly sub 500p output over the base). It’s a lackluster both as an internet device and media player and esp. not an e-book reader(who are they kidding would enjoy reading a book on a glossy LCD display, it’s a joke!).

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      4. Forgot.. tablet w/ no stylus.. :S XD

        Only thing that seems interesting is gaming with acclerometer but with a device that weights almost(WiFi) and over(3G) 700 grams it’s not a feather light machine… that is certainly not something i would gladly have in my hand for a longer amount of time (tablets must be sub 500 grams or they defy the usage purpose).

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      5. I see your point. But I still think 10″ is too big for a smartbook. 5 to 7 inch should be the ideal sweetspot – something like the S5 or X70 from Viliv.

        I may be confusing clamshell designs with slates, but I believe smartbooks should be the former. If you take away the keyboard and make it a slate, then it should have handwriting recognition to compensate.

        I’m not against hybrid devices btw, but that further complicates the smartbook definition. My concern beyond feature set is the size. Keep the clamshell between 5-7″, slates 7-10″. Handwriting on a slate smaller than 7″ becomes difficult.

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  9. i thought Apple didnt enter Nascent markets Mr. Jobs?

    “I’ve said in the past that I’m actually an ideal candidate for a smartbook because I mainly need a decent web browser to use to consume information.”

    i am much like you, but iPhone/Pre/Android browsers just dont cut it in this scenario. you’d be much better off with a ChromeOS based tablet for true “highend cloud” living.

    personally, i wont even consider a iPad until it is jail broken & even then i would probably take an Android/webOS alternative. besides you know Apple & this is still very much a Gen1 product, Gen2 will have the camera & multitasking OS everybody wants.

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  10. I think if anyone should get worried by the iPad, it should be the netbook manufacturers. The kindle is still safe but the iPad can absolutely replace netbooks in a couple of years, if only Apple would allow multitasking.

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