The iPad and its Creator: A matter of watch, learn, perfect

After years of speculation, the Great Steve Jobs has finally revealed the Apple tablet. But let’s be honest – the idea of the iPad isn’t new and Apple does not nearly deserve the innovation credit given by the media.

Carrying the rather trivial name “iPad”, the “magical” device may be yet another gadget you may find use for, but you really don’t need and you simply can’t resist buying. I have been scratching my head over the “why would I buy this?” question with many Apple products and have given up looking for reasons that make sense in my own little world.

Fortunately, I had a chance to ask probably one of the world’s most qualified people to answer this question – author Malcolm Gladwell. And if you think about it, his answer isn’t all that surprising. After all, Steve Jobs’ ideas aren’t as revolutionary as we tend to think.

The “webpad” has been around before, plenty of (ugly) webpads filled the Comdex show floor in November 2000 and 2001. Obviously, the webpad has not been that successful and took out promising companies with the ill-fated idea that webpads are all about the vision that we would be addicted to online shopping while sitting on a toilet (sorry, that was the explanation I was given back then).

Remember Be, which dumped its great BeOS in exchange for BeIA, a modified version of the operating system that would run on “Internet Appliances”? Or 3Com, whose Audrey “webpad” was easily the worst tablet ever designed and embarrassed an entire industry enough to just drop the tablet idea?

A decade later, Apple takes another shot at the tablet and I wonder if the tablet idea can succeed this time around. Do we need a tablet? Do we want a tablet?

From today’s perspective, I can say that I am completely happy with a decent notebook and desktop PC and I can’t justify the cost of third device between the two or three (if you look at a netbook) of them. But I may be wrong and Apple may be able to create a new product category and, in this sense, the iPad would be much more powerful than the iPhone, which did not create a new category, but rather redefined it.

A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be part of a 3D online chat with Malcolm Gladwell in Mingleverse. Gladwell published a series of books discussing certain talents of people, starting with “Tipping Point” and later with “Outliers”- people that are out of the ordinary and carry certain talents the big majority does not have. Steve Jobs would be such an “outlier,” in terms of his product ideas, but certainly in his ability to sell his ideas to us.

Gladwell believes that Jobs is an outlier among other outliers that came into this industry at the dawn and “ground floor of the digital innovation era.” He is part of a group that interestingly was born in a very narrow time frame.

For example, if you look at the birth dates of Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Steve Jobs, Scott McNealy, or Eric Schmidt, you would find that they all were born within twelve months of each other. And each one of them has a certain talent that made them an outlier and, to a certain degree, provided them with significant breaks during their career that enabled them to climb to the spot they are in today. Now don’t take that as an excuse that you are not Bill Gates. But it was an interesting side note.

What makes Steve Jobs so successful, according to Gladwell, is his talent to “watch, learn and perfect – swiftly and effectively.” The author said that the Apple co-founder, has matured the art of “perfecting someone else’s innovation.”

I can’t really find fault with this thought. Look at the iMac, the Macbook, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, and now the iPad. They are all better versions of what we have had before.

To be direct, it’s easy to say that Jobs steals obvious ideas and “simply” corrects the mistakes others have made and were blind enough not to fix themselves. So what about the iPad? What makes the iPad different from the 2000 tablet versions is the ubiquity of affordable wireless access, decent battery life, more advanced touchscreens and attractive content. Lots of attractive content.

While you can accuse Apple to have simply stolen an idea on one side, you have to give them credit that they have created a device that integrates mature technology we are all used to and content we love to consume and spend our money on. There is a very sophisticated and very strong ecosystem built around the iPad – an ecosystem that may not only carry the success of iPad sales, but also build a massive revenue machine that could turn Apple into a global content monopoly – audio, video, books. Scary, if you think about it.

Gladwell said that Jobs, now in its second life at Apple, has turned from a person who tried to create entirely new products into a much more evolutionary figure.

“Evolutionary innovation can be much more powerful than revolutionary innovation,” Gladwell said. “I am much more interested in quickly reacting to trends than to predicting trends. That is what Steve Jobs does.”   

By Gladwell’s definition, Jobs would be an outlier who has the extraordinary talent to spot and exploit market potential in failed products or products whose flaws may slow an entire industry. On the other hand, Jobs’ isn’t so successful at creating and marketing “revolutionary” products. Apple’s history has plenty of product failures that were attempts to pioneer a new product category: Think back to the Newton, which is generally considered to be the pioneer of handheld devices, or the Cube desktop from 2002, or, more recently, the Apple TV.

There is not one product that has pioneered a product category and was as successful as those that profited from the failures of others. Conceivably, Steve Jobs has built a $185 billion empire on the talent to “watch, learn and perfect,” if we believe Malcolm Gladwell.

An interesting take, if you think about it. And it makes you wonder who may have that outlier talent to detect “evolutionary” opportunities at Apple after Steve Jobs. And if Apple loses that talent, will Apple be able to survive without it? Can Apple become a true innovator?