Did Apple’s iPad Just Corner the Smartbook Market?


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.

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