Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The iPad cometh; trade in your Tylenol for Assassin's Creed

Last week apple announced the iPad, a device designed to inhabit a middle ground between a Smartphone and a laptop. Having had a few days to digest the announcement and bounce a few ideas off of our colleagues in the travel and technology arenas, we thought it a good time to prognosticate about how the iPad might impact the world of travel.

First, a quick assessment of what the iPad is and who is likely to buy it. The easiest way to get a handle on the iPad is to think of it as a big-screen version of the iPhone (or iPod touch, which is similar but without the phone capability.) The screen resolution is 1024 x 768, which is comparable to a decent sized laptop or desktop. The physical size of the screen is about 9.7 inches on the diagonal, so it's a little more than four times the size of an iPhone but significantly smaller than a laptop.

So who is likely to buy these things? Well, the iPad provides a great platform for email, music, calendar, address book, eBooks, videos, and games. It's a convergence device, which means that it does a lot of things well. So if you have a blackberry, for example, and you want something that handles your video, eBook, and music tasks, then the iPad is a good solution for you. What about IPhone users? Well, we initially thought there was so much overlap that the iPhone community would be reluctant to buy an iPad. Why have two devices that have so many of the same functions? We’ve seen other posts about the impact of iPad on travel and they focused on the likelihood of a new class of application that would only run, or would work significantly better, on an iPad. If that happened, iPhone users might be tempted to use an iPad for those new apps. We don’t really see that happening, at least not in the short term. But there will be reasons why the iPad will change traveler’s lives—even travelers with iPhones.

We thought a little more about two critical factors of the iPad: (1) its function as the 'in between' device and (2) convergence. We've all seen how laptops have been shrinking over the past few years so that now you can buy both Mac and PC laptops that fit into a manila envelope. As travelers rebel against the 20 pound laptop briefcase crammed with cables and connectors and power cords, the option of a smaller and lighter device with 'just enough' functionality to allow them to leave the laptop at home or in the hotel seems almost too good to be true. Given all the special purpose applications available today in the iTunes store and the word processor/spreadsheet/presenter replacements for the iPhone/iPad such as Documents to Go or the (upcoming) iWork suite, it's not hard to see that travelers will view the iPad as the key to keeping their shoulders and backs safe from the scourge of the laptop bag.

The other factor, convergence, comes into play in still another scenario when travelers are trying to simplify their lives and lighten the load. We saw one prediction that posited the Kindle would thrive against the iPad because of the price differential. True, the entry level Kindle is only about half the price of the entry level iPad, but do travelers really want to carry a dedicated eBook reader like the kindle when it comes as part of the iPad? We haven't seen the screen of the iPad up close, but it's rumored to blow away the Kindle screen in terms of both readability and functionality. So the purchase of an iPad means you don’t have to buy and carry that Kindle, or the Zune, or any other single-purpose device that iPad can emulate.

So it seems like the market for the iPad among travelers will be brisk regardless of what's already in your pocket or briefcase. We suspect that many travelers will be lured by the siren song of a lightweight platform that has just enough functionality to un-tether us from our desktops and laptops for some period of time, then lets us sync up or transfer our work back to home base for final polish and refinement. Remember that it’s not a laptop (or iPhone) replacement—it’s a complimentary device that lessens your dependency on the others and provides a richer experience to boot.

If the frequent (and even not-so-frequent) traveler is a good target market for the iPad, then how will iPad applications evolve for travelers? It seems natural that some of the travel applications now available for the iPhone will be altered to take advantage of the larger screen on the iPad, but it's hard to see where the extra real estate will actually enable a new class of application. Travel guidebooks will be much richer on the bigger screen, we bet many of those are already written to take advantage of whatever screen size the device has, so it's not technically a rewrite of the application though it looks better on the iPad. Think of how Microsoft Word works--if you change the size of the window, the text automatically re-flows to fit the new window size. It'll be the same with the guidebooks.

Even the travel booking process, which is traditionally very demanding on the user interface, has been very ably addressed by Kayak, for example. (Kudos to the Kayak product management team for a very sharp design.) We're not saying that the guys at Kayak aren't probably jumping up and down in anticipation of what they could do with the extra screen real estate, but it's safe to say that aside from a slicker look there probably isn't much more they could do that's truly innovative with respect to the iPad device itself. Those apps may come, but they’ll take a while to arrive.

So our prediction is that travelers will be impacted by the iPad more in terms of the form factor than by unique travel applications. Sure, there will be some new ones to exploit that amazing screen, but the ones that are already available will continue to provide a lot of functionality. An expanded Kayak or OTA application will be simpler to use, but we see the iPad contributing to quality of life for harried travelers who will at last be able to do a little work, watch a few videos, read a book, and browse pictures of the kids on a 6 hour flight (iPad can show 10 hours of video on one charge) without changing batteries or dislocating a shoulder.

Maybe they should have called it the iSmile.

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