Note the 2 photos above. While familiar in appearance, and arguably similar in function, the two products couldn’t be further apart in terms of their mainstream success.
On the left is Apple’s Newton, a handheld PDA adored by geeks that ultimately failed to garner mainstream success. The Newton project was eventually axed by Steve Jobs upon his return to Apple in 1997. On the right is Apple’s latest product, the iPad. It hasn’t even been out for a month, is currently available only in the US, yet sales of the device are exploding. And as opposed to the Newton, the iPad was and is Jobs’ baby, a product he reportedly called the most important thing he’s ever done.
In short, the product on the left was a commercial failure while the product on the right is already on the path to commercial success. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, what lessons or insights can we extract from two revolutionary products with markedly varying performances in the marketplace?
Apple’s lineup of Newton Messagepads were undoubtedly ahead of their time, but is that the reason why they failed to gain a foothold amongst non-geeks? Amy Chow of cheerfulsw thinks so:
The problem with the Newton wasn’t any physical or technical problem. Those are easy to surmount. The problem that broke the Newton was that nobody was prepared for it.
There was no mental slot in people’s heads that the Newton could glide into.
Chow brings up a fascinating and original point – that consumers are willing to overlook technical glitches if they have a firm grasp of what a product is and what it’s supposed to do. That may sound like mumbo jumbo, but look no farther than the millions of consumers who were and are more than willing to deal with AT&T connectivity issues as long as they get to keep their iPhone. Think about it – people will grit their teeth and deal with phone problems on a freakin phone because everything else the device does outweighs its cellular shortcomings.
Chow continues and writes that the critics who criticize the iPad for being nothing more than a “giant iPhone” are entirely missing the point.
They’re disappointed that the iPad is so… well… unsurprising.
Therein, of course, lies the genius.
THE IPAD IS BARELY A SURPRISE AT ALL
The design, delivery, and timing of the iPad couldn’t be more different than the Newton. The iPad wasn’t a surprise at all. It’s the capstone in a family of devices.
There’s a cozy, pre-existing slot in people’s brains that the iPad fills quite nicely.
“Oh,” they say. “It’s a big iPhone.”
It doesn’t matter if they utter that phrase in distaste. That little sand grain of dismissal becomes the core around which will form a pearl of understanding.
When Steve Jobs first demoed the iPad, he described it as a device that falls into an entirely new product category, but because the iPad is a natural extension of the iPhone, the utility and purpose of the device still resonates with consumers despite its new product categorization, and it’s this difference, Chow argues, that will lift the iPad to heights that the Newton was never able to reach.
Steve knows, better maybe than anyone else, that you don’t just slap a product out there and hope it will succeed. You have to prepare people for it, first.
And it’s better that people misunderstand a product, at first, than not understand it at all.
Of course, there are a plethora of tangible reasons to explain why the Newton failed and the iPad seemingly won’t, but Chow’s take on things provides a unique and fresh perspective that factors consumer psychology into the equation.
For a lot of people, technology is a scary thing, and the timing of the iPad couldn’t be more on point. To wit, a big ass tablet device from HP running Windows 7 will undoubtedly elicit quite a few, “What the face is that?!” The iPad on the other hand is more likely to evoke, “It’s just a big iPhone, what’s the big deal?” As Chow writes, “it’s better that people misunderstand a product, at first, than not understand it at all.”