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Apple’s Big Announcement: What Steve Really Said

When Steve Jobs took to the stage in San Francisco’s Moscone Center on January 27, the world knew what to expect: Apple would finally announce its long-awaited tablet.  With that pre-determined focus and the anticipatory roar for the next “insanely great” thing, most missed the larger announcement of the day.  Steve Jobs did not simply announce the company’s latest creation; he completed a task first made public in January 2007, when the company dropped “Computer” from its name to become Apple, Inc. The real news hidden in plain view as Jobs unveiled iPad was the repositioning of the company that created the personal computer.

Jobs kicked off the day casually with “a few updates” — news about iPod shipments and app store downloads.  Mundane stuff, surely, for the most hyped product launch in recent history.  It was a necessary soft entry to a big punch: Jobs was about to shift Apple at its core, positioning the company as “the largest mobile devices company in the world,” a claim that rival Nokia immediately disputed by saying Jobs too broadly defines the category. 

But that is the real story: the re-definition of mobile devices and who will lead the future.  Jobs means for it to be Apple, the company that shed “computer” in favor of a consumer electronics category play just three years ago.  Now, “mobile devices” is the battlefield.  With mobile devices now out-numbering desktop PCs more than three times over, this is no niche play; it is a fight for the future itself. The iPad, filling the gap between iPhone and Mac, occupies one more position on the front lines.  If Google means to control the cloud, Apple means to be the interface to it.  (The sniping between Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt over which matters more is just starting, and it seems to be a moral debate over good and “evil,” not just technology).

Given the real announcement of the day, Apple is right to be unconcerned with immediate and trivial commentary regarding iPad name associations with feminine-hygiene products.  (For the lexically challenged out there: “pad” also refers to such arcane things as a “notepad”; one’s “pad,” or groovy home; or a place to land, as in a “helipad”).  Category leadership is of much greater concern to Jobs, and much harder than a product launch.  It’s no wonder Nokia would like to confine its definition to what the company already produces. 

We’ve seen the challenges of category building before, and with much pre-engineered hype.  For those who remember “Ginger” long before she was renamed “Segway,” the potholes on the road from insanely anticipated launch to very limited success were harsh.  To be a leader in “human transporters” is to be a leader with no followers.  Even with plenty of product “wow” over what Segway did, we could not say what it was, which is a consumer non-starter.  

Surely wise of category building bridges to nowhere, Jobs could have launched iPad in the context of netbooks, but he did away with those as essentially useless and cheap — another atrocity for PC-favoring troglodytes. The truth is, there is a role for them, just not in the category game Jobs must win.  He could have gone the way most expected, and positioned iPad as heralding an advance in “tablet computers.”  But that history is long and ugly, and the “tablet PC” category is one Microsoft had already tried to own on the XP platform.  Smartly, Jobs knew he had to position iPad within an existing and credible category — mobile devices — if the product itself was not going to be overburdened with the definitional work of category building.  So he repositioned the company instead, and did so in a strategically sound and fundamentally true way.  Apple can afford category building and has done much of it with great success (e.g., laptop computing).

Because of Jobs’ bold move, we know what iPad is: a mobile device.  And it is from the “world’s largest mobile device company,” so it has instant category credibility.  Jobs engineered in a lot of familiarity (and hence engineered out a lot of resistance) to his latest “revolutionary” and “magical” creation. He also engineered in a lot of expectations.  According to Jobs, iPad is “better at” email, browsing, photos, video, music, games and e-books than anything else in its category. 

If it jumps these high hurdles, it just may end up playing a key role beyond the repositioning of Apple corporately.  It could reshuffle what the company’s product portfolio means to consumers.  Like many others, my first reaction was: “So…it’s a big iPhone.”  I now think we might rather quickly revise the relationship of the products to each other: iPhones as miniaturized iPads…and Macs as really big iPads used when heavier computing power is needed.  If so, iPad is the new core to Apple.  



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