Ok, I waited a bit to let some of the initial fervor pass, but now we need to talk about the iPad. Health care is an ideal environment for a form factor like this, and we are already seeing interest in hospital emergency rooms, pharmaceutical marketing applications, and access to electronic medical records. Though it's too early to tell, the iPad may become a catalyst for getting business analytics into the hands of executives. But I don’t think the impact of the iPad is going to be relegated to refined user experiences. Yes, it will take down some perceived and real technology barriers, and make both computing services and content more accessible to a broader population of users. But it will also challenge the assumptions around consumer choice and technical flexibility.
My earliest computer programming experiences were spent on Apple IIs. I often wonder if today’s younger geeks experience anything close to the sensation I used to get when sitting down in front of those machines: the incredibly-rude-by-current-standards “beep” on start-up, the heavy feel of the keys, the whirl of the 5.25” floppy disks, and the blank green (or amber) screen offering little-to-no functionality above what you could create yourself. It was a wonderful time with one of many subsequent breakthrough products.
In my mind, Apple’s simple-but-effective business strategy for the past 2 decades can be summarized as follows: design easy-to-use, stable technology products people really want to use, sacrificing some aspects of flexibility, openness, and price competitiveness. Apple devices like the iPod and iPhone also added a clearer focus to another dimension of the strategy: exclusivity. Consider the iPod’s proprietary hardware interface, the you-will-use-iTunes philosophy, AAC file formats, and the iPhone relationship with AT&T. Putting aside a brief period of insanity where Apple decided to open their architecture up to 3rd parties, there has long been an element of exclusivity to Apple. So what’s different now?
One word: volume. Exclusivity in small numbers is enticing – not everyone should have the Black Card. Exclusivity in large numbers can evolve into a monopoly. The iPhone, iPad, and iPod are reaching millions of people that would never have bought a Mac, and we are already seeing that this market position gives Apple the ability to do some unpopular things: reviewing/censoring applications; rejecting Flash support; and requiring Java, C#, and other programmers to change their develop language to an Apple-approved language and compiler. Accepting the debatable legitimacy of these decisions, Apple is clearly creating a closed environment, one that they control from hardware, software, content, and pricing perspectives. And they are pursuing it even if it means sacrificing features that users expect; the iPad has no multi-tasking, no user-extensible ports, no removable storage of any kind, and no Flash support.
So the iPad presents a number of questions:
1. Are we seeing the start of the next round of operating system/application wars? Windows, Unix, OS-X, Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone, Blackberry...the playing field is expanding, and not in a direction of standards. The diversification of hardware devices and software architectures means a lot more work for development organizations trying to meet the needs of their users.
2. How far will corporate IT groups go in enabling users to pick their own technology products? Over the past few years, strategists have predicted a time when corporate knowledge workers will provide their own hardware and software. I've not seen that happen yet, but I've seen lots of "unsupported" devices within corporate settings. And what is the implication of this trend for patient data protection and security?
3. Which is more important: cross-platform accessibility or rich features? This is an old debate, but it has a new face on it. We've all been pushing for browser-based applications for quite some time, but without Flash support, the feature-rich iPad experiences will be "thick clients" purchased in Apple's application store.
4. Will these devices finally push business decision makers towards decisions based on real-time information? I remember talking about this in 2002, but despite the proliferation of cell phones and portable computing devices, we have not seen this play out in any major portion of the health and life sciences ecosystem.
5. Given the inherently limited (but constantly growing) capabilities of these devices, how much will the future of analytics depend on cloud services? Or even more generally, how much future device functionality will be dependent on a network connection of some kind? I've already seen one iPad competitor that is pretty much useless unless connected to the Internet via WiFi or 3G.
6. Do the benefits of an Apple-like closed environment outweigh the benefits of extensibility and choice? If a user can go through their day-to-day lives without ever leaving the scope of Apple-controlled products and services, and it all just works, do they care? And how far can Apple or others go before customers reject it?
Apple customers have unmatched brand loyalty, and the iPad is an impressive first release of a product. I’ve not made the leap to purchasing one yet...though I suppose if Apple approved an iPad green screen application with a rude little beep, I’d probably go for it.
Top photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jliba / CC-Attribution