The transition to touchscreen computing

In conversations with friends about the iPad, what seems to surprise them most is the idea that Apple will phase out the Mac in favor of touchscreen devices. I think part of the reason for the surprise is that news outlets have focused so strongly on the limitations of the iPad in its current, initial form. I like to remind people that the first Mac was black and white, could only run one application at a time, and had no hard drive. Similarly, the first iPod was enormous by today’s standards, had a small capacity for songs, and only worked if you also had a Mac. What’s most interesting about the iPad is not where it is now, but where it is going.

Despite all of the limitations of the first version, consumers have already purchased over 2 million iPads. This is not just some toy for tech nerds.

And we know from using iPads that the touchscreen interface feels more real than an indirect mouse cursor ever has. That’s what gives iPads the “magic” that Apple commonly cites.

Earlier this week at the All Things D conference, Steve Jobs gave a few hints about where he thinks personal computers are going.

Walt Mossberg: Is the tablet going to eventually replace the laptop, do you think?

Steve Jobs: PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by one out of X people.

And this transformation is going to make some people uneasy. People from the PC world, like you and me. It’s going to make us uneasy because the PC has taken us a long ways. It’s brilliant. But… and we like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, I think it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, because it’s change, and a lot of vested interests are gonna change, and its gonna be different.

So, I think that we’re embarked on that. Is it the iPad? Who knows? Will it happen next year, or five years from now, or seven years from now… who knows? But I think we’re headed in that direction.

Mossberg: Well, you don’t really think it’s going to happen next year, right? I mean, it’s a longer process than that, isn’t it?

Jobs: [pauses, shakes head slowly, brings up his hands] Sure!

Mossberg: [laughs]

(Transcribed from a video of Steve Jobs being interviewed at the All Things D conference.)

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (in his interview at the same conference) dismissed the iPad as a “fad” that was difficult to take notes on during a meeting. Good luck with that, Microsoft.

Update: In the first quarter of iPad availability, Apple sold 3.27 million iPads and 3.47 million Macs. In the previous quarter (ended in March), Apple sold 0 iPads and 2.94 million Macs. And Apple’s iPad manufacturing has not even been able to keep up with demand.

Tim Cook (paraphrased) commented: “If you look at how long it took us to sell the first million iPods, 20+ months vs. one month of iPad, it’s a phenomenal difference. It’s not following the typical early adopter curve and cross into the mainstream. It’s gone straight to mainstream. Our guts tell us this market is very big, and we believe that iPad is really defining the market. We want to take full advantage of it so we are investing enormous time and resources in increasing our capability to getting iPads out to as many people as we can.”

Update 2: (July, 2010) Apple’s success seems to have caught Ballmer’s attention; he now says that producing a new Windows tablet to compete with the iPad is “job one urgency.”

Update 3: (October, 2010) In the second quarter of iPad availability, Apple sold 3.89 million Macs and 4.19 million iPads. A few days later, Apple held a special media event to reassure audiences that they still care about the Mac — and to introduce the new Macbook Airs, which are starting to function more like iPads…

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