General Purpose and Specific Purpose, iPads and Chromebooks

Clayton Christensen says that when a product becomes good enough in terms of functionality and reliability, vendors should shift their focus to improving affordability, convenience/accessibility, simplicity, and customization.  See Concepts page and discussion of Clayton Christensen. The confusing part is that two of these criteria -- simplicity and customization -- seem at odds.  With computing devices, for example, how do you make the product highly customizable yet simple to operate?  In The Innovator's Solution Christensen counsels against a "Swiss Army knife" approach to computing devices.  Christensen believes a general purpose device often results in customer confusion and inferior functionality -- scissors on a Swiss Army knife aren't as good as stand-alone scissors.  Christensen prefers specific purpose devices unless a general purpose alternative can do the same jobs without sacrificing simplicity, functionality, and convenience.  See Concepts page and discussion of Clayton Christensen; also see The Innovator's Solution, by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor, p. 85 (Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2003).

With the success of the iPhone and iPad, Apple has since proved that Swiss Army, general purpose devices can compete with and displace more specific purpose devices.  The iPhone is displacing specific purpose feature phones and thousands of other products/services through the jobs done by thousands of native apps.  The iPad is displacing specific purpose e-readers and thousands of other products/services, again through native apps.  Apple's App Store, in terms of annual app downloads, is still growing dramatically.

And this is happening because even though the iPad and iPhone are general purpose devices, they're still:  (1) simple to operate; (2) functionally "good enough" to replace many specific purpose products/services; (3) more convenient/available/accessible than carrying around a bunch of specific purpose products; (4) more affordable than purchasing a bunch of specific purpose products/services; and (5) more customizable than specific purpose products, due to the breadth of available native apps. The most important factor here may be that the iPad and iPhone are still simple/intuitive to operate -- without this simplicity a specific purpose product/service would arguably be a better choice for many consumers.

So how does all this impact a comparison of iPads versus Chromebooks?

The first point is that traditional laptops like the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are probably good enough in terms of functionality and reliability, at least for the average user.  Apple has addressed this issue/concern through the iPad, which is basically a laptop substitute that can be held in different positions and easily carried around.  Relative to a traditional laptop, which must be placed on a desk or on your lap to function well, the iPad improves on convenience/accessibility. The iPad also improves on affordability and simplicity.

And while you lose the enhanced functionality of a physical keyboard with an iPad, you gain the functionality of a touch sensitive screen and all the possibilities of this input method. Relative to a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, you also arguably get improved customization because of the breadth of native iPad apps available through Apple's App Store.

Apps allow the iPad to be different things to different people -- they make every iPad different.  A user can customize the iPad through apps rather than through the purchase of a specific product model with certain features or colors.  A large selection of native apps squarely addresses Christensen's recommendations regarding customization.  

Apple's App Store, and the iPad's versatility in terms of convenience, accessibility, and how the product can be held or positioned, give it the ability to accomplish a huge array of jobs that need done, probably far more jobs than a traditional keyboard-based laptop.  The iPad's accessibility/positioning advantage also fuels app development, since developers have so many different ways to program for an iPad (given the iPad's motion sensors, mobility, and wide variety of use contexts).

The interesting point here is that this type of app customization is really only possible on more general purpose computing devices.  More specific purpose devices, like calculators or Kindle e-book readers or Chromebooks, lack this flexibility.  Customization with the Kindle e-book reader means buying the specific model you want -- after that your customization options are obviously limited.  Chromebooks -- with a web-based browser and users funneled into proprietary Google services -- can only improve so far along the customization/jobs-that-need-done trajectory.  Chromebooks can't run native apps, and Google's data-driven, ad-based business model for Chromebooks is premised on proprietary services.

And while a browser-based OS is arguably simpler for users to operate, the physical keyboard employed by Chromebooks makes the device more cumbersome/difficult for users who prefer the iPad's intuitive touch interface.  A Chromebook's integrated physical keyboard also means the product isn't as convenient/accessible as an iPad, since it has the same positioning limitations as a traditional laptop.

So the iPad seems to trump the Chromebook in terms of convenience/access and customization.  Affordability and simplicity are probably draws.  A cheap Chromebook may have a lower upfront cost than an iPad with an optional keyboard, but an iPad may be more affordable over the long run due to its ability to replace a much broader range of specific purpose products and services (due to the breadth of available native apps) -- a Chromebook addresses a much smaller number of jobs that need done.  And the iPad's functionality, with or without a keyboard, is at least the equal of a Chromebook's functionality.

The biggest future problem for Chromebooks may be the simple fact that customization cannot be improved through native apps, which probably forces most users to purchase a Chromebook and another, more versatile device that can run native apps and software.  And that points to another problem with Chromebooks:  they're not versatile enough to handle unexpected jobs that need done.  When a user encounters an unanticipated problem that can't be addressed through his Chromebook, he may well upgrade to a device that supports native apps and can be customized on an as-needed basis (e.g., an iPad or traditional laptop).

Meanwhile Apple must continue looking for ways to make the iPad and iOS simpler and more intuitive.  Apple recently took an important step in this direction through automatic downloads of updates to iOS and native apps.  iOS7 looks beautiful, but probably needs to be more streamlined and more intuitive.  If the iPad and iOS get too bogged down by complexity, people will start abandoning the Swiss Army knife approach and start embracing more specific purpose devices like the Chromebook.

The author owns stock shares of Apple.