Sunday, March 28, 2010

iPad: Is There An Echo In Here?

Like the original iPhone, which was hard to get one's hands on when it launched, Apple's soon-to-ship iPad is already out of stock. Production issues, presumably connected to OEM touch-screen yield (it's not like losing workers to poisoning would be allowed to delay a product from a Chinese factory), first pushed the iPad release date from late March to April 3. Around the time news sugested iPad touch-screens were posing a production bottleneck and that Apple had tapped an alternate supplier to meet production numbers, Apple began informing pre-order customers wanting more than two iPads that orders would be limited to the two-unit cap discussed on the web site but not enforced on the order form. Pre-orders – totaling within the first two weeks of availability about a quarter million units bought before buyers had a chance to hold a demo in their hands – have consumed the entire existing production run, launch-day retail reservations have been halted, and new pre-orders are being quoted a ship date on April 12.

For all its talk about how e-Ink is superior to Apple's displays because of eye-strain issues, Amazon has apparently decided to enter the competition: Amazon bought a touch-screen manufacturer. Of course, it may be planning to add touch input to a low-illumination monochrome display that supports longer battery life, but who knows. Maybe Apple will drag Amazon into its mud pit where it hasn't a chance.

So, just as the iPhone drove smartphone manufacturers toward touch input and slicked interfaces, perhaps the iPad will push or pull tablet-like device manufacturers toward high-production-cost devices capable of competing with Apple on features that can be listed on a marketer's list of bulleted features. What will be missing from competitors' products, of course, is Apple's software: not only its applications but the standards-advancing, easily localizable, quickly growing, and mobile-dominant programming environment on which the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and (by the way) the entire Mac line is based. Copying Apple's online store and other surface mimicry doesn't duplicate the whole user experience of Apple's products; the whole impact is a result of the combined function of the whole.

As Apple's capacity to produce the whole widget improves, Apple's ability to make products that are harder to duplicate also improves. Apple's products aren't just the hardware, though: they are a product of a couple of decades of NeXT-derived object-oriented programming environment developments. Although software improvements that make it easier for developers to leverage Apple's increasingly powerful hardware may not be visible to users, the effects are. And the ease of programming in Apple's environment aren't visible to users, but the improved quality of applications – which have developer attention spent where users will notice, rather than spent fighting the unreasonable demands of less thoughtful programming environments – is visible everywhere.

The iPad will expose another facet of Apple's high-quality product development process – a process that now combines processor engineering, case design, kernel development, device-driver optimization, developer tool production, and maintenance and expansion of a rich API for developing GUI interfaces and their associated data-management tools. The quality of this process is a competitive advantage whose significance seems to be ignored by analysts, who worry about whether Apple's next device will change the world, and who seem not to understand why Apple's last several devices have been so successful. So long as analysts misunderstand why Apple is successful, they will likely continue to undervalue the enterprise.

In the meantime, expect Apple to excel.

Remember, supply shortages are just another excuse for free buzz – advertising Apple doesn't need to spend a dime to receive – and keeps the public hungry for the things while Apple is perfecting its stable of iPad applications and its infrastructure for delivering iPad advsertisements. These things won't be bad for Apple, they won't be bad for cunsumers, and they won't be bad for shareholders.

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