Thursday, January 28, 2010, 10:01 AM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
Steve Jobs finally made it official yesterday, unveiling the iPad before a world breathlessly awaiting the next big thing from Apple's factory of wonders. The device did not disappoint from a coolness perspective. It is a digital Swiss army knife of sorts, capable of browsing the web, playing games, reading books, looking at photos, working on docs, etc. all in a gorgeous ("intimate" in Jobs's words) package. All that aside, my main interest has been how significant will the iPad be for video providers and specifically for the evolution of online and mobile video? For now anyway, I think the answer is "not very."
For the iPad to breakthrough for video providers it has to sell really well, creating an addressable universe of millions, if not tens of millions of users. Only widespread adoption makes it a potential game-changer for video economics, possibly enhancing the paid business model. That may happen over time, but in the immediate future I think it's doubtful. For as cool as the iPad is, in many ways, it's still a "gadget" - overflowing with novelty and packed with status appeal, but hard-pressed to be defined as a "must have" device like a cell phone or a laptop. Maybe I'm really missing something but I still haven't drunk the Kool-Aid for why tablets are going to be so critical in users' lives.
To me, the question comes down to how many people will be able to identify the distinct value the iPad brings them and deem it worthy of purchase? Apple certainly exceeded expectations by offering a $499 low-end iPad, putting it in spitting distance for those who may have been clamoring just for an e-book reader and are willing to step up a bit more. But the $499 price is somewhat illusory. If you want connectivity beyond your home or sporadic Wi-Fi hotspots, you'll need to buy at least the lowest end 3G-enabled iPad, for $629. And you'll certainly buy the case to protect that gorgeous screen, likely for another $50. So with tax you're in the $700 range. But the real killer is you'll almost certainly need to take the iPad's $30/mo AT&T all-you-can-eat 3G service to get online when you're outside your house or within reach of a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Despite the iPad's claim that its price is "well within reach," I think that for all but a pretty narrow slice of Americans, that's not the case - $700 plus another $30/mo easily puts it in the "considered purchase" zone for most potential buyers. Think about it another way: if the iPhone had not been so heavily subsidized by AT&T and other carriers, bringing its price down to $100-$200, how many iPhones do you think Apple would have sold at $500-$600 apiece? Not many is right. And that's for a device that has at least partial "must have" appeal (it is a cell phone after all). Now I know Apple just reported a blow-out holiday quarter, but America is still mired in a recession, with high joblessness and the vast majority of people cutting back on discretionary purchases.
Meanwhile, in the demo yesterday, Jobs showed off how well a YouTube video looks on the iPad, and of course, as with the iPods and the iPhone you can purchase and download video from iTunes. But is there something new that the iPad specifically does for video, beyond delivering a more intimate experience? Is the iPad going to offer some new, previously unavailable video access? Or some new interactivity? Or something else Jobs will conjure? If there is, it wasn't demo'd yesterday. Maybe in time.
These days video providers are inundated with options for where to focus their attention and allocate their scarce resources. Online distribution (on their own sites and/or syndicated)? Mobile? Over-the-top devices? Aggregators? IPTV? VOD? Short form? Long form? Branded content? The list goes on and on. Resources are tight and the first filter for any new initiative is always, "how many eyeballs and potential dollars does it offer?"
Of course, over time the iPad's price will come down and more people will adopt it, making it incrementally more attractive. Its beautiful screen, enabling a fabulous video experience, will help sell the device itself. But Apple will still need to surmount certain niggly things like what do about lack of Flash (like the iPhone it's not currently supported by the iPad, meaning no watching Hulu, just for starters), limited battery life when watching video and AT&T's already-overloaded 3G network, which is bound to disappoint iPad buyers. And beyond these, the larger question looms: if I'm interested in watching video on the go on a nice large screen, why not just do so on my laptop, which is almost certainly with me already?
The iPad is a revolutionary device and an Apple engineering marvel. But as a consumer proposition, it's a much bigger leap for Apple to succeed. With Macs, the iPod and the iPhone, Apple made better, revolutionary products in categories that already existed. With the iPad, Apple is trying to create a whole product new category, looking for daylight where none may exist. Maybe it will be big, maybe not. In the near term, I'm skeptical that it will have any major impact for video providers and for the evolution of online and mobile video.
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