Jean-Louis Gassée on why the iPad still rules, Android’s opportunity and Microsoft’s ‘mystifying’ plans

by Doug Drinkwater

August 8 2012

Former Apple exec and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassée talks Apple, the iPad market and how he contemplated making tablets over twenty years ago.

When it comes to Apple's formative years, few know the company better than Jean-Louis Gassée. The former Apple exec worked in Cupertino from 1981 to 1990, and replaced the late Steve Jobs to become the head of the Mac development team in the late 1980s. He still follows Apple closely and comments regularly on all things tech for the blog Monday Note

TabTimes spoke to the well-connected Parisian, now working as a venture partner at Allegis Capital, to get his views on the iPad’s dominance of the tablet market, why competitors still lag behind, and how Tim Cook is changing Apple.

TabTimes: Tablets were nowhere near as prominent when you left Apple. What do you make of today’s tablets, and specifically of the iPad?

Jean-Louis Gassée: The tablet space is fascinating. Actually when Steve Sakoman started the Newton project and I left Apple, people felt that we would do a tablet, but the truth is we chose not to.

Back then tablets had a stylus and relied too much on handwriting recognition, and we felt that it was not going to work. It still doesn’t.

But when Jobs introduced the first iPad two years ago everybody was excited. After 30 years of insufficient attempts at tablets, I wanted Apple to get it right and we now know that they did.

To me, the iPad succeeds for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t have a ‘proper’ keyboard, a stylus, a USB port or an SD card. I was impressed that Apple went against the perceived wisdom that you must take all things expected from a features list.

But have you always thought this way about the iPad? Because not everyone was convinced when the first model launched back in 2010…

When I first got the first iPad on the day of launch, I admit that I was disappointed initially. I could understand why people were critical, because I couldn’t do the same things with the iPad that I could do on my MacBook.

But very quickly I saw how fluid the user experience was. A friend of mine actually took his application into Apple prior to the launch and came out saying ‘I can’t tell you what it is, but you will be surprised how fast and fluid this thing is’.

Why do you think Android rivals have fallen behind Apple?

I think it’s a convergence of factors. In Apple’s walled garden, the way things work together –like the apps and music - tend to work better, but an increasingly crucial role is Apple’s presence in retail. It’s a sense of security that customers can walk into a store on a Sunday if things need fixing.

But overall, Apple knows that consumers buy an experience, not a features list.

What do you make of Apple’s rivals? Do you have any non-Apple tablets yourself?

I have a Nexus 7 and a Samsung Galaxy device, because I wanted to be faithful to my wife’s philosophy of having one of each. I wanted to be the customer.

The Nexus 7 is not so good but Google is a leader that is willing to be wrong for a long time to get things right, and I respect that. They're also going to improve the Google Play store experience over time.

Let’s not forget Microsoft either, which is the swiss army knife of the tablet market. I find them quite mystifying; Windows 8 laptops make sense, but I am not sure about touchscreens with a keyboard. I am certainly more interested in what the Android ecosystem can do.

You’ve been a vocal supporter of the 7-inch tablet, unlike Steve Jobs. Do you think an iPad Mini makes sense for Apple?

I believe the 7-inch tablet segment is going to be lively over the next few years. Amazon will come back with a better 7-inch tablet, and eventually this space will prove real competition for Apple.

Steve Jobs derided the idea of a smaller iPad but this is a guy that had real gumption, and no shame. Tim Cook, with great affection and reverance, called Jobs the greatest ‘flip flopper’ ever seen. By this he meant, Steve would fight an idea, and then later say ‘let’s do it’. He only ever wanted to be surrounded by people with strong convictions and would welcome disagreements - if backed with a solid line of reasoning.

A 7-inch iPad would certainly serve more the needs of the media, perhaps more than the 10-inch iPad, which I see being used more for typing. I have a feeling Apple will make a decent job of the iPad Mini.

Talking of Jobs, have you seen any shift in company direction since Tim Cook took over as Apple CEO?

I don’t think there has been a change in Apple’s philosophy. Cook reminded everyone when he paid homage that Jobs urged everyone to seek their own path and make up their own mind, and in a good way Cook does just that.

There have been some small management changes but I don’t see any major changes. And if Cook is making changes, it will be a while before you see the impact.

Doug Drinkwater is the International Editor of TabTimes and is based in London, England.

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