The iPad's success is still more about the 'i' than the 'Pad'

With all the talk about extra pixels and megabits, it's easy to lose sight of why the iPad is really winning.

I've gotten my hands the on so-called "new iPad" — as Apple has prosaically named its third-generation tablet — and it's fine. Yes, it's even a little finer than the second-generation iPad.

LTE is a long-overdue upgrade. The hotspot feature will make a lot of business travelers happy. And, of course, I will make the obligatory ring-kiss to the new "Retina Display." Yes, the screen is nicer to look at than ever, but you're already sick of hearing that, right?

Still, while the new iPad's visuals are pleasant enough, and dealing with photos is now snappy and smooth, and the LTE chip downloads files like a Usain Bolt 100-yard dash, none of that really has much to do with why the third-gen iPad is going to continue to control the tablet market.

As I said during the CES 2012 tablet parade in January... it ain't about the hardware.

Quick quiz: Do you remember when Apple first started adding the "i" to its products? If you guessed the iMac in 1998, then you nailed it.

When Apple launched the original iMac, CEO Steve Jobs said, "We are targeting this for the number one use that consumers tell us they want a computer for, which is to get on the Internet — simply and fast. [And] 'i' also means some other things to us. We are a personal computer company and although this product was born to network, it is also a beautiful stand-alone product."

In other words, the iMac was about connecting to the Internet but it was also about being your personal device rather than just a generic piece of equipment. It went on to become the best-selling single computer model ever (at the time).

It's easy to overlook that Apple is using the exact same strategy with the iPad. The difference is that it's a much different Internet today than it was 14 years ago. It's a bigger, more crowded Internet. It's a more dangerous Internet, at times. But, it's also an Internet that does a lot more than pull up web pages. It delivers music. It streams movies. It does video calls. It collaborates on business files in real time. And, it slices and dices into digestible chunks called apps.

This is the Internet that Apple is handling better than anyone else, and that's the big reason why the iPad is doing so well. Apple has lowered the friction for downloading music and movies and TV shows. It makes video calls easy enough for anyone to figure out. And, it has tens of thousands of tablet apps that allow people to directly access a lot of their favorite stuff on the Internet, and do it "simply and fast" as Jobs first promised with the iMac.

The big thing is that the iPad lowers friction. It is simple. It's too simple for a lot of power users. But, for a lot of other people, it's a liberating experience compared to the battles they used to have to fight to do simple things on their Windows PCs. And, some technophiles are finding that the iPad makes a nice little secondary device when they are in business meetings or on airplanes, or sitting on the couch on the weekends or in bed in the evenings.

In trying to compete with the iPad, Google made two bets with Android tablets: It bet that it could win with better hardware and the open web. Both bets have come up empty.

The Motorola Xoom was arguably a much better piece of hardware than the original iPad. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 was arguably a better piece of hardware than the iPad 2. Both of those devices had Verizon's 4G LTE long before it arrived on the third-gen iPad, for example.

It didn't matter, because Google also opted to champion the open web on Android tablets. It worked with Adobe to get Flash running on Android tablets (the iPad famously spurned Flash, saying it had too many performance and stability problems). Google also focused on building a great tablet browser, and it did. I would have much rather browsed the web on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 than an iPad 2. Android's browser thumb controls were especially innovative and useful.

The problem was that if I really wanted to browse the full web then I still would have much rather done it from a laptop than an Android tablet. But, if I wanted quick, easy access to some of my favorite Internet resources without firing up the laptop, then I would have much rather done it from an iPad than an Android tablet, because the iPad apps are simpler to use and are optimized for a touchscreen.

There are those who will argue that these apps are balkanizing the Internet, and I tend to agree with a lot of their arguments. But, in an age where time is more precious than ever and we're all tired of spending too much time fiddling with our gadgets to make them work, Apple and the army of developers writing apps for the iPad are seducing us with a simpler, faster experience for a lot of the best stuff on the Internet. And that, more than any retinas or megabits, is why the iPad is still winning.

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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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