If Apple is known for anything, it’s the company’s ability to deliver solid designs on products that customers actually want to show off. From the smartphone to the tablet to the computer, Apple has been able to make showing the device you’re using actually kind of cool.
That’s a huge departure from the 1990s when portable devices were kept in cases or pockets and never let out into the world. At that time, the so-called “geek” or businessperson was using a portable device, and none of those products were designed to be shown off as fashionable complements at Starbucks.
For a long time, Apple was really the only technology company that understood the value of hardware design. The company realized that if it could deliver something truly special-looking, consumers would respond. And in droves, those consumers responded.
But now, things are different. The tablet market, especially, is slowly but surely becoming what the PC industry became long ago – a commoditized space with products running the same components, boasting the same screens, and offering about the same price point.
Choosing one device over another, in other words, isn’t such a giant leap of faith: in most cases, consumers and enterprise users will be just fine with whatever device they decide to buy.
Apple isn’t able to sidestep that issue. The iPad’s internal components are roughly the same in those included in the vast majority of flagship tablets. Yes, the iPad has far more apps optimized for the platform than there are Android tablet apps, but from a pure performance perspective, it’s hard to say that the iPad or the iPad Mini are truly superior to those from Google or Samsung or Asus.
Apple, in other words, has become part of the commoditized tablet market.
Apple needs to regain its edge
But there’s still one place in which Apple can change that and continue to lead the tablet market: design.
Whether it’s software or hardware design, the look and feel of Apple’s products can set the device apart and continue to give the iPhone maker the edge it so desperately needs.
Apple's Jonathan Ive is by many people's reckoning, the best technology product designer in the world. His eye for beauty is second to none, and he’s the chief reason that Apple has been so successful over the last several years.
Without Steve Jobs’ discerning eye to ensure Ive’s concepts were kept in check, Apple has fallen into a bit of a malaise on design, with the company maintaining hardware design for far too long. The company’s MacBook Pro, for example, looks about the same as it did years ago. And it’s only every other year that we see a slight improvement to the iPhone’s design. On the tablet front, Apple’s larger iPad keeps getting slimmer, but its overall design doesn’t change all that much.
But it’s high time that Ive changes that. I understand that there isn’t a whole lot that companies can do to change the look and feel of a tablet, but if anyone can pull off something that’s unique, it’s Ive. And at this point, I see no reason why he couldn’t. He’s pulled off some design miracles in the past, after all.
Design changes hard and soft
But perhaps the greater chance for making the iPad stand apart from competitors is on software design. Ive is now in charge of software design at Apple, and according to some rumors, he’s planning to overhaul iOS on several fronts.
That’s good news. As noted, Ive has an eye for design, and iOS is in desperate need of an overhaul. If he can show something off in iOS 7 later this year or in iOS 8 in 2014 that truly rocks the marketplace, the paradigm will shift in the tablet market. The iPad will once again be the “good-looking” option. And once again, Ive will have won the design battle.
Despite the obvious constraints in tablet design, I still believe Apple can do something special. I believe the company will reduce the bezel size down to practically nothing, make the device even thinner, and use something other than a glass and aluminum finish. Although the iPad will need to be a rectangular product with a prominent screen, that shouldn’t limit Ive and his team from finding a way to keep Apple ahead of the tablet pack.