Take last night. I got home from work, and said to myself: “I’m going to use nothing but my iPad for the next 24 hours. No laptop.” That lasted for about 15 minutes; I was trying to write a business e-mail, and got so frustrated I gave up and grabbed my laptop. A minute later I was browsing the web with the iPad, and wanted to share a link with a colleague; it took me literally 10 times longer to accomplish that simple action. As I wrote last weekend, I remain convinced the iPad is not a machine for doing things.
But an hour after that, I had a completely different experience. I had played around with the Netflix app, but not yet watched a movie on it. So I crawled into bed, launched Netflix, and watched a movie. What a revelation! It was awesome (my ergonomic issues watching video solved by getting a case which you can turn into a stand).
This is really what the iPad is good for; at its essence, it’s a lightweight, portable, digitally connected screen. It’s a passive device, one that gets better with less interaction. It’s not a computing device. Watching movies. Casually flipping through photos (or a simple magazine like publication). Light browsing of the web. The best applications are those like Netflix (NPR is also good) that require the minimal interaction to set up a mostly-passive experience. And games — it’s a good gaming device.
With that insight, my reaction was: “The iPad is the future of entertainment, not computing.” But then I thought about it a minute longer. And realized that the tablet is the future of entertainment, not the iPad.
My experience with Netflix on the iPad will be available on a wide range of Android and Windows-powered tablets later this year. If I mainly want to browse the web, or watch movies, do I really need a $500 iPad, or will a $200-300 Android tablet do just fine? Is the AppStore really going to be full of one-of-a-kind applications I won’t be able to get on the Android? No.
This is where the decision to kill Abode and boot Flash is really likely to hurt Apple. With an Android tablet, I’ll be able not only to use Netflix, I’ll be able to watch all of the video out there on the Web.
Say I stumble upon a great SNL clip on the Huffington Post or a funny Daily Show clip on Talking Points Memo. With the iPad, I’ll see a big blank space where the video is supposed to be (because, trust me, Hulu and Viacom won’t be supporting HTML5 embeds anytime soon). Maybe I’ll be curious enough to see if there is a Hulu app; install it (assuming Hulu builds such an app); launch it; search for that SNL video; and, finally, watch it. But really — look at the hurdles you’ll have to go through. Think about how you discover content — through blogs (Tumblr, WordPress, Posterous), links on Twitter to those blog posts, things embedded on sites you like and visit frequently, stuff in your Facebook feed or even on Vodpod.
Think about that experience on the Android tablet. I’ll come across the embedded Flash clip on the Huffington Post and guess what — it’ll play back just fine. Full screen, even. The video quality will be just as good. This will happen on Android phones, too.
As a consumer, this is just better. And if the video is available in HTML5, that’s great too — the Android will handle that every bit as well as the iPad. The world will move to HTML5 video over the next 2-3 years; but it will take that long. The fact that that universe of programming will work just fine on an Android tablet, and won’t on an iPad, creates an interesting dynamic.
I’m convinced now that the tablet form factor will be increasingly important for the entertainment world. But I’m now much less convinced Apple will dominate that world, despite their head start.
UPDATE: I’m looking back at this post some 20 months later, and most of it holds up. But the big things I got wrong were (a) my view that the lack of Flash support would cripple the iPad and (b) that Android would seize on that missing thing and deliver a better tablet. Whoops! Jobs and crew were totally right to boot Flash, and my ranting about that was, in retrospect, well, stupid.