Apple iPad: A Heat Seeking Missile Aimed at Netbooks, E-Readers

Includes: AAPL, AMZN
by: Larry Dignan

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has unveiled its iPad tablet and almost instantly the debate began: Is this device a computer or a mobile device? Is it an e-reader or light laptop? Where does the iPad fit? Is this tablet really different? Apple likes those questions since the iPad is one device aimed at two markets—e-readers and netbooks.

Simply put, boxing the iPad into a strict definition just doesn’t work. In some respects, netbooks and e-readers are designed for the same tasks: Reading, Web content and light use. Apple CEO Steve Jobs appears to be targeting both with the iPad.

Consider Jobs’ unveiling on Wednesday (Techmeme):

Jobs said the iPad is “more intimate than a laptop and more capable than a smartphone.”

Sounds like a netbook rival. But then Jobs uncorks the Amazon Kindle jabs.

“Amazon has done a great job with the Kindle and we’re going to stand on their shoulders and go a little further.”

Jobs really revealed that the iPad is a netbook and e-reader heat seeking missile when he outlined the device’s pricing. “We had very ambitious technical goals and user interface goals, but also aggressive price goals because we wanted to put this in the hands of lots of people. The iPad pricing starts at $499,” he said. In fact, the pricing probably saved the whole event. Every skeptic I know—including the one I see in the mirror—was on board for $499. Why? That price is well known and it’s an amount where you say, “I could do that.”

To wit:

The Kindle DX goes for $489. It’s no coincidence that a Google search on “Kindle DX” yields sponsored ads for Apple’s iPad.

Reading that it’s clear that Apple is aimed at the Kindle. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster writes:

We believe the iPad and Kindle can comfortably coexist for the next year given their different functionality and price points. We’ve taken a look at the iPad and believe Amazon’s Kindle is superior as a dedicated reading device because of its eInk technology, whereas Apple’s iPad is better suited as a multimedia device. That being said, we believe the devices will compete more directly in 2011 as their functionality evolves and prices come down.

However, if you follow the money—actually keyword advertising—it’s clear that the iPad is also positioned as a netbook killer.

Do a search on netbooks and you get an iPad sponsored ad.

Apple’s Tim Cook called netbooks junky so the company will chafe at the term used in the same sentence as the iPad, but the keywords say something different.

Meanwhile, the iPad is a souped-up e-reader (although I would like to try it on the deck or on the beach for it to truly upend the Kindle). In geek circles, the iPad can spark some debate about its positioning. CNet’s Dan Ackerman captures the scuttlebutt. Is the iPad a computer or a mobile device? The debate could last longer than you’d think. Munster writes:

After using the iPad, we believe it will cannibalize iPod touch sales, but not Mac sales. The gadget is a premium mobile device, not a computer; as such, we see some iPod touch buyers stepping up to the iPad, but consumers looking for an affordable portable computer will likely stick with the MacBook lineup.

These debates happen when a company is trying to redefine a category. Apple’s iPod touch is more gaming machine than music player. Toss in the apps and you can make the argument that the iPod touch is a mini-PC. The waters get really murky with the iPad.

The iPad doesn’t fit well into any category. What’s unclear is whether Apple dangled enough carrots in front of buyers to keep them interested. Once the initial reaction wears off consumers start crunching the numbers. ZDNet’s Joel Evans walks through his buying calculus. I have my own, but would probably lean in favor of an iPad. Overall, technology buyers have to ask whether they want to carry yet another device. If so, the iPad warrants a look.

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