The iPad isn’t a Prius. The iPad is the Mac.

128k Mac
The original 128kB Macintosh

The Economist has a piece on the iPad that is, as is often the case with said publication, a lot more on point than anything else I’ve heard or read on the topic.

The enthusiasm of the Apple faithful may be overdone, but Jobs’ record suggests that when he blesses a market, it takes off. And tablet computing promises to transform not just one industry, but three — computing, telecoms and media. Companies in the first two businesses view the iPad’s arrival with trepidation, for Apple’s history makes it a fearsome competitor. The media industry, by contrast, welcomes it wholeheartedly. Piracy, free content and the dispersal of advertising around the Web have made the Internet a difficult environment for media companies.

True, there are worries that Apple could end up wielding a lot of power in these new markets, as it already does in digital music. But a new market opened up and dominated by Apple is better than a shrinking market, or no market at all.

If Jobs manages to pull off another amazing trick with another brilliant device, then the benefits of the digital revolution to media companies with genuinely popular products may soon start to outweigh the costs.

I’m getting sick of tech bloggers who don’t understand why on earth anyone would want a tablet that doesn’t have insert feature here. I’m almost as sick of tech bloggers explaining to their friends (who agree with them) that it’s Utter Utter Genius because it’s like a Prius or an Automatic Transmission or even The Shape of Things to Come (although this last post is perhaps the most insightful and to-the-point).

If I were to pick an analogy, I’d pick a computer analogy. The iPad is the Mac. Or to put it another way, it is to the Mac what the Mac was to the IBM PC in 1984.

So, to all of my fellow tech bloggers struggling for meaningful analogies — go back in time to 1984 and review the Macintosh.

When the Mac came out you couldn’t write Mac programs on a Mac (not compiled ones, anyway). You needed a Lisa. It lacked a lot of capabilities that other computers had, e.g. it had no expansion slots, no hard disk, no color display. It’s actually quite normal for emerging computer platforms to be crippled from a development standpoint — tethered to the platform from which they were spawned by an umbilical cord of cross-compilers, etc.. This doesn’t mean that, if Apple were to transition its entire product line to what is now referred to as iPhone OS, the new platform would lack any significant capabilities possessed by “computers”.

The difference between a computer and a car is that a computer is a general-purpose device. A Prius is a car. You can’t hack a Prius to function as a food processor, even if you know exactly how it works. Cars aren’t general-purpose devices. The analogy sucks. The only reason you can’t write iPhone software using an iPhone is that Apple expressly won’t allow such apps in the app store (I have a friend who would have shipped one by now if it did). The Newton — a commercially unsuccessful platform by pretty much any measurement — had at least one native visual IDE.

Will the iPad ever be as “open” to third-party development as the Mac is? That’s an interesting question. There are reasons both for and against — would you rather be forced to get software through an “app store” if it made trojans (for example) a non-issue?

Is the iPad merely an information appliance for the “unwashed masses” which might be useful for “non-professionals” and casual use by “pros” but always merely a supplement to “real computers”? No. It’s the next incarnation of the personal computer. At least, it or things like it. Exactly how the security vs. openness issue is resolved is yet to be seen — Apple is at least trying something (and what Apple is doing is far less draconian than what game console vendors do). Four years ago Apple was shipping PowerPC computers; last year they stopped supporting the PowerPC altogether. I predict that if the iPad takes off, Mac OS’s days are numbered.

Post Script

I was beaten to the punch.