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Apple’s iPad: The Blank Slate approach for creating a category

A couple of days ago I was in Hamburg. There at the airport I was addressed by a young lady who wanted sell a credit card from an English bank to me. What raised my real interest though was that this lady was using an iPad to enter the data of potential buyers. This iPad was hooked up to a printer so that the application forms could be printed out and signed right on spot.

This little incident got me thinking about the positioning of the iPad.

When it first launched, I couldn’t figure out how Apple was positioning it. Was it meant to be a laptop replacement or a complementary device? If it was designed for more casual usage, why did Apple make iWork (Apple’s semi-equivalent to Microsoft Office) one of the initial apps?

The sales figures of the iPad speak for themselves: So despite the ambiguity, there is obviously enough core value to the product.

To me, the iPad is a role model for launching a product that is a blank slate in an existing ecosystem of surrounding services. Physically it is a blank slate. But even more it is also a blank slate from the conceptual point of view.

There are some people arguing that Apple didn’t need to clearly define the intent of the iPad because they have blindly loyal customers that will buy anything blessed by Steve Jobs. I don’t buy this argument. Apple (or Steve Jobs, depending on your point of view) has probably the deepest insight into consumer needs and wants on the planet. Plus they learned how to build up and manage a business ecosystem: Apple used the iPod and iTunes as the Trojan Horse to enter the fortress of the music industry and when they introduced the iPhone, it was also an ecosystem consisting of mobile operators, software developers and content providers.

It takes great discipline (not lack of it) to leave a product so open to determination by consumers and, in Apple’s case, developer partners. The typical temptation is to spec the product definition very precisely so that you know exactly how to pitch it to consumers and retailers and how to position it against the competition. But this temptation probably would have closed opportunities in non-traditional markets. In the iPad’s case, there has been considerable interest from verticals such as healthcare and retail. If Apple had over-constrained the iPad it may have missed out on people seeing the opportunities with the device and feeling like it was open enough for them to try out experimentally.

Likewise, it takes great discipline to leave features out of a product. There is quite a number of buyers and potential buyers complaining about features that seemed “easy” or “cheap” to include, like a camera. Yet Apple left them out. Most companies would add them in, with the assumption that the more features there are, the more potential customers product might attract.

This may work when doing an incremental innovation in an established category, but when trying to enter or create a nascent category (such as touch-controlled smartphones or tablet computers) it is often a better strategy to launch something more minimal that takes less resources, time and risk to develop and support, and then carefully pay attention to market feedback to shape the next generation offering.