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Bill Gates Joins the iPad's Army of Critics. Steve Jobs Couldn't Care Less.

With the sudden ridicule of Steve Jobs' new do-everything media player, Apple has abruptly become a ripe target for those who would like to take it down a notch. The tsunami of criticism is probably excessive, but it does show a change in how people perceive Apple. Suddenly, it seems, Apple and its visionary leader are fair game. Maybe it's because we're less worried that Steve is on his deathbed, and that makes attacking him okay. And perhaps it's because the iPad is arguably the ultimate example of Apple's penchant for pre-release speculation and hype gone wild.

The Apple iPad was unveiled Jan. 27, 2010.
Let's face it. There are enough valid quibbles about the iPad that it seems as if the product might have been rushed out the door, much like the company's last big dud, AppleTV.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I asked Jobs' longtime rival, Bill Gates, what he thought of the iPad. After all, Gates has been a proponent of tablet computers for years, and he was in awe of the iPhone when it first came out. But the iPad? Gates told me he isn't sold.
"You know, I'm a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard - in other words a netbook - will be the mainstream on that," he said. "So, it's not like I sit there and feel the same way I did with iPhone where I say, 'Oh my God, Microsoft didn't aim high enough.' It's a nice reader, but there's nothing on the iPad I look at and say, 'Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it.'"

Ultimately, consumers will settle the netbook vs. iPad debate. What struck me about the iPad's rollout was not the lack of pen or keyboard but the lack of content and partners? To wit:

  • Why couldn't Apple put together some sort of mobile TV subscription deal to go with the iPad right out of the gate? Jobs sits on the board of Disney and is its largest shareholder, yet not even the ABC network announced any special content for iPad.
  • Why did Jobs have not one single magazine company on stage? The iPad would seem an ideal magazine delivery platform. And the failing magazine industry is certainly looking for a magic solution.
  • Where is the educational computing strategy? The iPad looks like a natural replacement for textbooks and calculators, and could be managed by a school over the network. Plus, they're inexpensive.
  • Why the staged rollout with 3G models lagging months behind? Especially when Jobs touts a cheap and flexible new 3G data plan from AT&T.
  • And finally, how can a browsing experience be complete without Adobe Flash? Who cares if Flash isn't state of the art. For now it is integral to multimedia on the Web.
So I can't help but wonder: Does the iPad unveiling mark a pivotal point after which Apple is perceived as too cocksure for its own good? Could it indicate that Jobs' pitch-perfect sense of the consumer technology marketplace might be getting a little...tinny? Or, to give Apple a credit, is this simply another example of being so far ahead of the curve that most of us just don't get it?

Perhaps it's just inevitable that Apple's reputation would evolve from that of the beloved underdog to the dreaded big galoot. Nearly every powerful technology company has endured that rite of passage: IBM, DEC, Intel, Sony, and, of course, Microsoft. Even Google, with its pretentious slogan "Don't be evil," is now viewed as the enemy by many.

Apple, long seen as a pitiable also-ran to Microsoft in terms of market share and influence, can certainly hold its own at this point. Apple, which has been growing far faster than Microsoft, is on track to post revenues of more than $50 billion this year. (Microsoft revenues for its current fiscal year are expected to be more than $60 billion). Just as important: Jobs and Apple wield influence over adjacent industries - film, music and, potentially, TV - in a way that Microsoft never did.

On the other hand, folks, isn't all this noise and iPad disbelief the way it always is when a new class of computing device is introduced? Fight off your ADD for a moment, and think back to early 2007, when the now ubiquitous iPhone was "pre-introduced" after months of feverish speculation based upon misinformation that Apple did little or nothing to squelch.

When Apple unveiled it six months later, there was a lot of initial grumbling about what the shiny little puck couldn't do. Browser-based apps only? No cut and paste? AT&T or nothing? Are you kidding? But now, after selling more than 42 million iPhones plus some 33 million iPod Touches, and creating a vast new target for which software developers can make mobile applications that people have downloaded by the billions, those qualms are all but forgotten.

Keep in mind, too, that from the get-go the iPad will support the ever-growing array of apps. The complaint that the iPad is merely an overgrown iPod Touch seems odd; once developers start building apps expressly for its larger screen, it could turn into quite a powerful device. Size does matter.

Moreover, being a big shot has its advantages. Within a week of the iPad's debut, Apple's flexible pricing model for e-books helped move Amazon to change its pricing structure. And who knows how electronic gaming will change with the iPad's crossbreeding of characteristics from Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PSP. It takes a bit of a bully to cajole the makers and purveyors of all of these different forms of content to play nice.

Judging from the trajectories of the iPod and the iPhone, Apple and its developer partners will mend the iPad's flaws sooner than we might expect. Love Apple or loathe it, I'd bet that eventually the combination of flexibility, programmability, connectivity, finger-power, and brute force in the marketplace will make the iPad the first genuine, interactive, high-definition Personal Universal Media Player. Hmmm. Maybe Apple should've called it the iPump?

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