iPad is a Handbag

March 23, 2011

I’m here at the Kynetx Impact conference (come see me talk tomorrow at 11am!) learning about the “live web” through a series of keynotes.  One of those keynotes will be moderated by Robert Scoble, and he happens to be sitting 5′ to my left as I type these words.  A few minutes ago I was labeled a “curmudgeon” (I didn’t know that word was used anymore!  but I managed to spell it right on first shot, so go me) for being an iPad skeptic.  Robert took it upon himself to explain to me why the iPad is so incredible… and alas, it didn’t take.  But while he was trying, I think I learned *why* I’m an iPad skeptic: because it’s primarily a fashion accessory, and I’m not fashionable.

Now that’s a bold statement.  (The first one, not the second.)  You might say “but it clearly has better workmanship than any competitor!” and “it does all sorts of genuinely helpful things!”  And those statements are definitely true.  But the same could be said of a haute couture handbag — many of which cost vastly more than an iPad despite doing so much less.

I’ve been toying with this notion for a while, but it really rung for me as Robert was trying to extol the virtues of the iPad — clearly incredulous that I wasn’t blown away. 

He brought up an app that shows a ton of videos in a huge virtual wall: an impressive work that looks super cool for browsing random videos.  But I never do that; I probably look at a video sent to me by some friend maybe once a week, probably less.  I’d never ever sit down and just randomly browse videos.

Then he brought up Wolfram Alpha, showing the periodic table in an amazingly gorgeous, exquisite way.  But I haven’t needed a periodic table since high school.

Then there was the cool news reader, this neat app for learning fiddles, etc.  All of them are really neat, fantastic executions of their concept.  Executions that simply couldn’t be done on any other device — executions that are made *possible* by the iPad.

But their incredible executions of concepts that range from mildly to totally uninteresting.  Given that, I just couldn’t get excited about them, and that was clearly not the reaction he intended.

At this point we highlighted that I’m incredibly far off the edge when it comes to my habits.  I don’t watch TV, I don’t have a car, I work more or less continuously, and when I’m not on my absurdly-small laptop I’m drinking wine with my wife and walking my beagle.  I carry a Palm Pre (which replaced my Sidekick), I use Verizon Broadband (and Ricochet back in the day), etc, etc.  He said “you make me look mainstream”.

Given all that, it’s possible that I’m just so overworked and socially deficient that I simply cannot conceive of this value that is universally recognized by everyone else.  It’s possible.

But I don’t buy it.  I think a more simple explanation is that I’m simply not fashionable.

I think when most people see an iPad, they see this incredible world of possibilities — and they want to participate in that world, even if  
they don’t personally use those possibilities in any meaningful way (or even if many of those possibilities don’t actually exist yet).  And I actually think that feeling of participation is akin or even equivalent to fashion.

For example, Robert said Android wouldn’t compete with iPhone until it had 10,000 *good* apps.  But then he acknowledged that virtually everyone is always playing Angry Birds, or one of a tiny set of other apps.  So I don’t think the 10K app collection is important because people actually use those apps.  I think it’s necessary to create this image of endless possibility — without that, the suspension of disbelief that’s so critical to fashion just isn’t there.

Similar to fashionable clothing.  A common theme is they always use the best materials, the highest quality stitching, the most exotic product placements and high-class endorsements, etc.  I think all of these are necessary to create this image of supreme quality that justifies a 10x purchase price (or 10x brand loyalty) despite only being marginally better in any measurable way.

Indeed, when I look back on my extreme product choices in the past, they actually *were* the best.  I was doing email and browsing real webpages on my phone in 2002.  I had wireless broadband in 2000.  Compared to any Mac laptop, mine has a longer battery life, higher resolution screen, a smaller form factor, and built-in Verizon Broadband, etc.  They were genuinely better than the other options at the time, but those options just weren’t fashionable.

But my point isn’t to tout my awesomeness (though I could do that all day).  Nor is my point to say the iPad isn’t awesome (it is), or that tablets aren’t superior to laptops for certain use cases (they are, though in far fewer cases than is usually claimed).

Rather, I’m saying the iPad — like any fashion accessory — isn’t nearly awesome as people say it is, and most of its differentiating value over other tablets is simply the strength of Apple’s brand in telling a story of infinite possibilities, most of which don’t actually matter, and many of which don’t yet exist.

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8 Responses to “iPad is a Handbag”


  1. Eh, I think you really have to stretch the definition of "fashion accessory" for it to fit here. Personally I'd define a "fashion accessory" as "something for which the primary purpose is simply to be seen with said thing."I don't think an iPad fits there. An iPad is not a $1,000 handbag, which can carry things only as a vestigial purpose, which would be akin to 6" stiletto heels having "walking" as their primary purpose, which is obviously not the case. They are for fashion first, and walking way down the list, especially considering that most women would rather take them off and walk barefoot if they have to go any distance.The iPad has a couple of very obvious primary purposes, like reading email and surfing the web. Sure, you could do this on some other device that you already own, maybe a laptop or a phone, but that doesn't make the iPad functionally moot and primarily useful simply to be seen with it. You admit so yourself, saying "… 'it does all sorts of genuinely helpful things!' And those statements are definitely true."It's conceded that it does useful things, just not ones that you're interested in. You also concede that the things you are interested in doing tend to be pretty far off normal, for instance you've listed a couple other objects that many people find useful but you have no need for: like a car, or a television.I think the iPad falls squarely into that category — a thing that does some stuff that many find useful or enjoyable, but that David doesn't care about.An iPad is about as equally a fashion accessory as a car. Maybe a nice car, say a BMW. Sure, part of the reason you get a BMW is so you can show off your nice car, but the main reason you get it is because you want to drive places. It's function first and a little bit of fashion thrown in as an optional extra.


  2. Maybe the word "accessory" is wrong, but the vast majority of fashion has function: jackets, bags, shoes, pants, etc. So yes, it's more like a handbag (which holds stuff) than an earring (which is purely cosmetic).As for its "obvious primary purposes" I don't feel they're any more obvious or primary than a handbag. I don't know a single person who has an iPad who doesn't already have a laptop or iPhone (and probably both) — all their functional needs are already being met. It's less like the major functional benefit of buying your first car, and more like the minor incremental benefit of buying you second, third, or fourth car. I don't feel the purchase decision is based on function first; I think people decide to buy it *well before* they have any idea what they're going to do with it. And the reason they do this is fashion.As for BMW, again, I feel its differentiating value is largely due to fashion. The most important feature about a new BMW is that it says BMW on it. I think the same is true for Apple products: the most important feature of the iPad is that Apple made it.Not all Apple products succeed; in the end they still need to be good products. (Just like not every Dolche and Gabbana product flies off the shelves.) But every Apple product enters the market at a huge advantage because of the brand loyalty — which I maintain is largely about fashion.


  3. The vast majority of functional things are also designed to be fashionable to some degree (jackets, shoes, etc), because people like things that are cool more than things that simply suffice.I'd argue that it doesn't matter how many other internet-capable devices a person owns. None of those makes the iPad a fashion accessory. If I go out tomorrow and buy an iPhone, Motorola Droid, Palm Pre, and Google Nexus S phone, which one is the one that's "already meeting my functional needs" and which ones are therefore fashion accessories by redundancy?Redundancy does not imply fashion.And yeah, BMW's *differentiating* value may be fashion, but it's *primary* value (which doesn't differentiate it from a Honda) is transportation.I don't know how you can argue your tiny micro-laptop is less of a fashion accessory than an iPad, and I will not accept "but I bought it first" as a legitimate answer.In the review you linked:"Can you get an $800 laptop with five times the performance of the P Series, or a $399 netbook with better ergonomics and endurance? Of course, but the VAIO P is — and will probably always be, unless it drops severely in price — a niche device meant for those that have the cash to burn on an overpriced, albeit striking little laptop."


  4. If I did most of my work on some other computer, or if my laptop was incredibly popular or was even seen as cool, I might agree. But it's the only laptop I use, nobody else has anything like it, and the primary reaction when I pull it out is that it's a bizarre curiosity that few people would ever want. In other words, this laptop won't get anybody laid, but an iPad might.So my laptop might be an accessory for somebody who uses it primarily for bling, but for me it's my workhorse. The iPad is *nobody's* workhorse.Even Robert, who is as big a champion as there is — who brought not just one but *two* iPads and had them arranged in front of him — didn't use either of them even once (other than to show them off), instead using his laptop continuously throughout.The iPad is great, don't get me wrong. But it's not so much greater than comparable alternatives to justify the pure hysteria over it. I think that hysteria is mostly about non-tangible benefits of iPad ownership — just like anything fashionable.


  5. I guess I'm lost how you can say that the iPad is both "great" and that it does "all sorts of genuinely helpful things" and also say "The iPad is *nobody's* workhorse".I'm also lost on what you think makes something a fashion item.Is it based on their popularity? You say your laptop is not a fashion item because, "nobody else has anything like it" (which sounds a lot like a reason someone would spend $2,500 on a pair of shoes). Yes, the iPad is popular, but even if an item is popular that doesn't mean you wouldn't want one, or it's not useful, or it's a fashion item. You wear Converse All-Stars, right? They're pretty popular. If that's not what makes it a fashion item, is it because it's a secondary device? If so, a cell phone with a web browser is a fashion item if you primarily use a laptop (and I guess vice versa, as well). Or a landline phone (or a cell phone) if you have both. Which one is the fashion item seems arbitrary.If it's a fashion item because it's not very useful, then why do you keep conceding it's usefulness. What about other things that are just expensive toys, like a playstation? Is that a fashion item? It's just there for amusement.Or is it a fashion item because of the *way* you use it? Scoble's twin iPads would be fashion items because their sole purpose is to look impressive, whereas someone who travels with an iPad in lieu of a laptop to use to keep up on facebook, email, web-browsing, etc, wouldn't have theirs fall into the "fashion item" category because it's become their primary (if light-duty) computer.If "fashion item" is an inherent property of the item, then I'm still unconvinced. If "fashion item" is a property of the way you use the item, then I can see that point, but it also means that for some people, an iPad probably isn't a fashion item.

  6. lloydcundiff Says:

    I agree with your assertion that an iPad is like a fashion accessory. However, I still believe the device to be truly revolutionary because it introduces a large segment of the population to a new way to think about computing. It's cloud/user centric as opposed to file/task centric. This is a very deep and fundamental shift in the way we approach computing. Millions of people buying the iPad "because it's cool" provides the critical mass necessary for society as a whole to accept a modified vision of what a computer really is. Those tuned into technology have probaly seen this vision long ago or perhaps have a completely different vision of what computing ought to be. The device is not amazing. Apple's ability to exert so much influence is.Also, I attended yor presentation at Impact today and found your remarks on APIs an excellent addition to Sam's keynote. Thanks.


  7. Ug, this isn't a complex argument. You might not agree with it, but it's not that difficult to grasp.I'm merely saying the iPad's great functionality isn't nearly so great as to warrant the hysteria it generates. As evidence I offer the extreme disconnect between what the evangelists say they want to do with the product, and what they actually do with the product. To explain that gap I suggest there is some other substantial motivation behind the purchase other than intended use, and I think the closest word to describe it is fashion.Said another way, the primary motivation to buy an iPad is to join the class of people who own iPads (or to visibly and tangibly assert membership in the Apple subculture). Like any fashion decision, it's primarily about membership and status, with functionality being a secondary (though still important) consideration.Most fashions reflect a desire to participate in some greater vision — to buy your way into a world that you don't otherwise inhabit. This world might be of movie stars, or nonexistently-awesome goth clubs, or whatever. I think the iPad vision (or really, the Apple vision) is one of — frankly — technological magic and beauty.Now I'm sure you'll pick that apart in any number of obvious ways, but it's not intended to be a scientific analysis so I'll just let it stand as is and give you the last word.

  8. Zane Says:

    I like it! You've pinpointed one of those things that I've always felt, but have been too frustrated to articulate. Putting aside that an obvious apple fan went through such lengths to label "fashion accessory" as a misnomer when it was used in relation to the ipad, I've found that many apple users are passionate almost to the point of delirium. Using the BMW example, or any other brand for that matter, when has there ever been a brand that bred such a need for identification amongst its user base? I mean, I happen to think the ipad is cool. But, personally, I'd rather have a tablet that allowed me to develop custom apps on the fly and install them (android). It is, without a doubt, the brand that consumers latch onto before the functionality, most especially with ipads/iphones. I would think that such zeal would be reserved for a product that allowed for customization and adaptability, not for one that required a rigorous approval process before anything can come near it.


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