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An Apple launch that thought differently

Many of Apple's most loyal fans thought the iPad would be underwhelming, and yet they still flocked to stores on opening weekend to pick it up--once they'd seen that the masses were springing for it.

Eager iPad owners in San Francisco: They're not paying attention to that bottle of wine! Maya Baratz

SAN FRANCISCO--Even the raspberry cream eggs were getting ignored.

At one Easter dinner party on Sunday night, a gathering of single and coupled adults with an average age of about 30, the real centerpiece wasn't the vase of lavender tulips that one person had arranged on the table or the glut of various pastel-colored marshmallow-cream confections that were passed around. It was, instead, a trio of brand-new Apple iPads that three separate guests had brought, eager to show off the glowing slates to the others in attendance. At least one of them had shown up in line at an Apple Store at six o'clock the prior morning to ensure that he could have it.

As the main course was about to be served, one end of the table was completely occupied by testing out what the iPad could do: One was getting tilted and tipped around to show off Real Racing HD, a $9.99 race car driving game that was a hit on the iPhone and now stands a chance at becoming one of the iPad's first gaming sensations. Another was tasked with loading up the iBooks store and comparing it to Amazon's e-books, until the owner of the third iPad commandeered the second in an attempt to start a head-to-head game of chess. The porchetta with sides of mushroom tart and Brussels sprouts was delicious, but the iPads had stolen the show.

The iPad craze wasn't limited to Bay Area professionals who have been known to pick up any shiny toy that Apple CEO Steve Jobs pitches them. The tablet's opening weekend appeared to be a smashing success, and not just because there were no horror stories of long lines and sold-out products. Apple says 300,000 were sold on the first day; in that same time frame, 1 million apps and 250,000 e-books were downloaded. Estimates indicate that in its first three months on the shelves, the iPad will beat the original iPhone's sales figures.

Wait: This wasn't supposed to happen. Reactions to the iPad had been mixed, at best, when Jobs unveiled it in January. Many of the usual suspects in the tech industry had panned the iPad, citing nit-picky concerns like its inability to multitask apps and its lack of a camera, or snubbing the closed-off, Apple-groomed operating system as a step back in personal computing. "It's just a big iPod Touch" was what you heard people saying. Were the early adopters going to buy it? "Sure. Maybe. Eventually."

The unveiling of the iPad was, without a doubt, missing much of the novelty that its iPhone sibling brought to the world. "You have to know that the reception was going to be like that, because it's built on the same operating system as the iPhone," said Ian Schafer, CEO of marketing firm Deep Focus, who'd picked up an iPad on day one. "So, you launch the iPhone, and it's a whole gesture-based interface that no one's ever seen before. This one (the iPad) looked familiar, really familiar."

On the app side, many of the ideas that have been fueling tech-industry buzz in the recent past are noticeably absent. Take social networking, for example: there is, as of yet, no Facebook app for the iPad (well, not an official one) and only a limited number of Twitter clients. Geolocation, the hottest craze in all things mobile, is almost nowhere to be found other than in the local-guide app from Loopt, a start-up that many among the Valley digerati had already written off in favor of the shinier Foursquare and Gowalla. E-commerce apps aren't so much vamped up as they are simplified, eschewing bells and whistles for simple, photograph-driven shopping. After years of a bridge-burning, "out with the old" attitude in digital media, the iPad is about making the old new again: books, newspapers, board games, and the sort of thing that can be passed around a dining room table. And people, excluding some complaints about Wi-Fi performance and other issues, are loving it.

What made the iPad go from relative yawn to instant hit? Apple's notorious internal secrecy means that we'll never know for sure whether, after seeing the digerati sniff at the January iPad announcement, the company altered its marketing strategy in any way to target families rather than fanboys. But things add up and start to fit together, hinting that maybe from the start and maybe after a change in course, Apple was taking a new approach with the marketing of the iPad.

In what some deemed a glitch and others saw as an eleventh-hour publicity move, iPad apps appeared in the App Store a day early, giving potential customers a preview of what was out there. That's crucial for buyers who aren't willing to pick up a device simply because Apple made it. "It's not so much the device that's marketable, it's what the device does," Deep Focus' Schafer told CNET. "There's some apps where you have to wipe the drool off the screen after you see them...Once you see them, even just in the iTunes Store, and they carefully chose the ones they highlighted there, it makes you want these things bad."

And what first had seemed like a scheduling folly--releasing the device on a weekend, and to boot, a weekend with a major religious holiday attached to it--began to look like Apple's marketing savvy at its best. The iPad, a device meant to live on couches and coffee tables, was riding a wave of word-of-mouth marketing in family living rooms on a holiday. There was something quite brilliant about that.

The press strategy is telling, too. Some of the most popular gadget news outlets, the sorts of publications that would undoubtedly be winnowing out the pros and cons of the iPad's hardware and software, weren't even given early review units of the device. Apple instead chose Time magazine as the platform for its splashy media coverage, with a feature story and interview with Jobs penned not by a member of the tech press but by Stephen Fry, a British actor and comedian who likely has more Twitter followers than most insidery Apple pundits combined.

Then, the pre-launch appearance that drummed up the most excitement wasn't any tech blogger's breathless review, but a guest-star spot on the ABC sitcom "Modern Family." (Apple has denied that it was paid product placement.)

The hype for the original iPhone was riding on months of momentum. But for the iPad, the "you need this" impulse came late in the game. Many of the first-weekend buyers weren't even planning to buy an iPad so early until something, whether it be "Modern Family" or Stephen Fry or the early glimpse of the iPad's app array before the device was even available, convinced them to show up on Easter weekend.

Paul Saarinen, a Minneapolis father of two, posted a blog entry of his gleeful two-year-old playing with an iPad that he said he almost didn't buy in the first place. "I've read all the pros and cons," Saarinen told CNET. "Really, the cons all focus on lack of features, when they should be focusing on possibilities and potential...My kids love it. They're not disappointed that it doesn't have a camera, or doesn't run Flash. It's a big multitouch screen that can do lots of interesting stuff. The developers should focus on that."

David Nemeth of Wilmington, Del., said Stephen Fry sealed the deal for him. "For the last few years I have been a huge Apple fan--customer service and a good product were what swayed me from Windows to Apple. But regarding the iPad, purchasing it was always lurking in back of my mind," Nemeth said. He, too, had his family in mind. "Over the last few months, my son's Windows laptop was dying a slow death--the laptop was almost five years old--and then it was Stephen Fry's tweets that pushed me over the edge."

Apple surged from niche to mainstream with the backing of an army of loyalists, but just as some pundits are saying that the iPad marks a certain maturity in the convergence of mobile and laptop computing, its debut represents a sort of maturation in Apple's own marketing.

The visuals that will define the iPad's first weekend are not the clips of giddy acolytes running out the door of an Apple store tearing the packaging off their new toys (does anybody care who was first in line for it, anyway?) but rather the YouTube videos of toddlers reaching out to play with the colorful screens. This was the launch where Apple chose not to reach out to the geeks first--while somehow knowing that they would see the light, too.