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What the iPad's success says about us

CNET's tablet reviewer Donald Bell reflects on how the iPad has shaped our expectations of technology, and how it reflects a new set of consumer values.

Photo of iPad being held.
Does the iPad's unprecedented success reflect a change in what we want from technology? CNET

I'm not here to tell you how great the iPad is. With more than 25 million sold, it's not like Apple needs my help. If all the iPad owners of the world came together and made their own country, its population would rival Texas.

At this point, it has gone beyond Apple vs. Google or Mac vs. PC. You people [points finger] are buying iPads at a rate that defies logic, defies the economic downturn, and defies the models of computer retail that have existed for years.

I'm exhausted from trying to figure out why other manufacturers can't create something as good as the iPad. It's like trying to figure out why someone can't make a better Coca-Cola.

The bigger question is, "What's motivating us to buy the iPad?"

The big trade-off
Ever since the first Mac rolled off the assembly line, Apple's philosophy has been to tailor the user experience to the everyman. Whether it was Apple's unique take on the desktop interface or the popular introduction of the mouse, Apple went out of its way to make the personal computer approachable to a general audience.

Of course, part of this tailoring involves hiding or disguising almost everything that makes a computer a computer. System files are concealed. Command-line terminals are buried in a Utilities folder. The guts are all tucked out of sight. In a pre-Internet era when people bought computers to understand them, or as a means to a specific end, the pretty metaphors of Apple's OS were often seen as an unwelcome and unnecessary illusion.

Today, the iPad succeeds for exactly the same reasons that early Macs were criticized. It is an exceptionally disguised computer. The formula works now because we have changed.

The audience for computers now is the audience for the Internet, the audience for e-mail, the audience for...being a modern human being. To make a computer for this new audience, you can't presume that people have the patience or capacity to understand a printer driver or a kernel exception. The number of people concerned about not having root access to their iPads pales in comparison with the number of people who would freak out if Angry Birds suddenly disappeared.

Like it or not, the iPad is arguably the most popular personal computer ever made. And as much as I'd like to credit our nation's educational efforts in computer literacy and '80s grade schools filled with computers running Oregon Trail, the reality is that the iPad is the first computer that successfully stoops to our level. Apple's people could explain it to us, but instead they call it "magic," and we're seemingly OK with that.

Why aren't we buying the competition?
The iPad's tablet competition hasn't been selling well, and it isn't for lack of trying. A trail of tablets has been cheerfully marching to my desk all year, confidently proclaiming their dual-core processors, beefed-up specs, 4G wireless compatibility, and laptoplike peripheral support. Some have scored low ratings, but there are many out there that we've championed as legitimate alternatives to the iPad. Still, you're not buying them. You [points finger] are not buying them. Why?

I've tried to wrap my head around this a dozen different ways. Is it the App Store? The iPod halo effect? The design? Apple Store tech support? Marketing brainwashing? Price?

All of those angles have some legitimacy, but they don't get to the heart of the matter. Try as you might, using logic to understand the iPad's stark appeal over its competition will only lead to frustration. I see it every day--in myself and my role here at CNET, and in the comments left here on CNET's blogs.

The only explanation that gives me comfort is to think of the iPad the same way I think of Facebook or YouTube. To think of it, in a way, as a place (not a tool) where we choose to spend our free time. In this way, the iPad isn't a computer so much as it's a window into a place where we can reliably expect entertainment, social connection, and novelty, just like a Facebook or a YouTube.

So far, manufacturers have been so wrapped up in the "window" and the mechanics of it all, they haven't really evaluated (or haven't been willing to) what's on the other side of the glass and whether it's a place people really want to spend time. For the most part, they've left this element of the equation to Google's Android software.

The crushing part is that we know how it ends for Facebook's, Twitter's, and YouTube's competitors. We implicitly understand the futility of trying to emulate a phenomena like this once the momentum is established (just ask the Winklevoss twins).

More importantly, if the iPad is a blueprint for how we expect to relate to personal technology going forward--as destination, not tool--then how is anyone going to compete against a company like Apple? How do you beat a company that has been banking on the importance of user experience since 1984?

I'm not being rhetorical. I really want to know. My job and the vitality of the tablet market depends on a new approach and fresh ideas. Let's hear them, you [points finger].