Sunday, February 7, 2010

Golden Boy

There is always someone that we all know—at work, at school, or even at home—who seems to not be able to do any wrong. If they did something satisfactorily, it is seen as a miracle. If they blunder fantastically, it is seen as just a misstep on the way to greatness. These people are infuriating for two reasons. First, they grow to believe their infallibility, which leads to a degree of hubris. Second, everyone starts to actually believe that the person can do no wrong—that everything they touch is or will turn to gold. For most people this inevitably leads to problems down the road. Either things they are involved in start to fail or things they are involved do not fail but should and the success that is built on a house of cards eventually crumbles, taking out everyone involved. These golden boys, as I will call them, are the black swans of sociology. I believe Steve Jobs is a golden boy.

It is easy to see why Jobs is a golden boy. He created the Macintosh. Then he popularized USB. He brought us the iPod. Then the iPhone. And if you ignore the AppleTV and the Macbook Air, Jobs is on a winning streak. The Apple board believes in Jobs—they gave him a plane after the success of the iPod. The shareholders believe in Jobs--Apple stock is rising. Shareholders believe if Jobs more than Apple because Apple stock fell when Jobs left rather unexpectedly for a liver transplant. His possible absence from Apple was seen as a tragedy. To Apple and the world, Jobs is Apple. Few people believe that the iPod would have come from Apple without Jobs.

In all the success of the iPod and iPhone, people have already touted the iPad as a world changing device. It is not even out on the market and people say that it will change the world. This is not a mere difference of saying whether or not it will turn a profit for Apple. People are saying it will shape society. A bit extreme, don’t you think? Neither the iPod nor the iPhone has done that. What is happening is that the successes of the iPod and iPhone have trickled over the iPad, so that regardless of its merit, the iPad will be hugely successful for Apple. At least in the beginning. Apple stock will and has surely risen just from the news. But unlike the iPod and iPhone, both of which replaced devices that we had already used for certain functions—CD players and walkmans and PDAs and other smartphones, the iPad does not truly replace any device. It was meant to create a new niche. One that allows fanboys to say the iPad is the device you didn’t know you had to have.

The biggest selling point of the iPad is that it delivers true web access to your hands. With a larger screen and multitouch technology, you can now surf the web as it was meant to be done whenever and wherever you desire. With the exception of flash, you can read webpages just as you do on your computer without being tied to your desktop and without being restricted by a “mobile” web page. You can also run apps similar to the apps on the iPhone, but newer apps taking advantage of the size will likely be written over time. And though not designed to compete with the ebook readers, it boasts the ability to display the written word. So the question is, how big will the portable web be? Laptops and netbooks are already available. Do people carry them around to surf the web? It does not seem that they do, but it does not mean that it is not convenient enough for people that way. If you could turn on the iPad like you do the iPhone and not like you do a netbook, that might change things. (Though netbooks with solid state drives boot incredibly quickly—mine boots un under 30 seconds.)

I do not believe the people need or want a device that lets them surf the web wherever they are (only WiFi will be available on the first iPads, 3G comes in a later release—I cannot explain the marketing reasoning either), especially for $500. And that is without tax and shipping and warranty. Yet, I suspect the iPad will sell well because people will buy it because, well, just because. It will be a material technology bubble. Or perhaps the public will actually decide for themselves if they need the web “in their hands” and not just accept the decree from Jobs. We will know in April.

There is one thing that is rarer than a golden boy, and that is a true golden boy. History has a theory that explains this. The theory, mind you, involves Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. It says that if Lincoln had not existed, the slaves would still have been freed, indicating that Lincoln, while responsible for the end of slavery, was not necessary for the end of slavery. On the other hand, if JFK had not been assassinated, the world as we know it would likely be very different, indicating that JFK himself was a world changer and was necessary for that change. Not to detract from Lincoln’s importance in history, but he would be the golden boy and JFK would be the true golden boy. I think the iPad will tell us which one Jobs really is.