Prof. Randal C. Picker, The University of Chicago Law School
April 5, 2010

The iPad arrived on Saturday.  Not mine, unfortunately, as I want to see it live and in person before buying, but the iPad itself.  I am not enough of a fanboy to have rushed out to see one immediately, though I confess to being eager to do so.  I owned an original 1984 Macintosh and though I long ago joined the dark side of the force – Windows – I have long admired Apple’s design sense.  The iPhone/iPod Touch platform has been remarkably successful and has powerfully shaped the evolution of the smartphone.

I confess to having a most unnatural relationship with my iPod Touch.  Steve Jobs has billed the iPad as the arrival of the newest third screen, a device that will join our laptops and smartphones as part of our daily digital arsenal.  (I guess Steve doesn’t watch very much TV, as this would be a fourth screen for many of us.)  That said, there clearly is uncertainty about precisely how large the market is for the iPad, and that is driven by one key question: What will you do with it?

We should start with the physical experience and then turn to content.  Three screens and three physical experiences.  The laptop is lean-forward, fingers on the keyboard.  The smartphone starts as BlackBerry prayer and then is matched with touch on the iPhone OS and more recently Android.  The iPad is being billed as a lean-backward, touch driven experience.

The content industry has high hopes for the iPad.  Newspapers and magazines have, on the whole, struggled to monetize their Web content.  Digital advertising dollars have not come close to matching direct lost paying customers.  Apple has done a terrific job of building an infrastructure for micro-payments in the iPhone OS and now will bring this to the much larger form factor of the iPad.  The lean-backward, touch-driven iPad promises to be a vastly more immersive experience than is possible on a small-screen device such as a smartphone, one that publishers hope consumers will be willing to pay for directly.

But what will we buy exactly?  The iPad is a full-fledged media device – assuming that we ignore video in Adobe’s Flash format – so we are talking video, podcasts, and more, but here I want to focus on text.  We know that the iPad will compete with the Kindle, though that competition is tricky.  The Kindle is both a device and a platform.  The iPad competes directly with the Kindle as a third-screen device, but, assuming Apple permits it, the Kindle platform will run nicely on the iPad.

Amazon has a successful iPhone application and a surprising number of books are read on what I find to be a very small screen for reading.  But the Kindle platform on the iPad might be quite attractive, assuming, of course, that Apple doesn’t block it.  So far at least, Apple seems ready and willing to block apps that offer functionality that competes directly with the native functionality of the iPhone OS.

My reluctance to go Kindle has been driven by a desire for color and a concern about locking myself into a proprietary books platform.  How you feel about that depends undoubtedly on what you are reading.  Neither of those probably matters if you are reading, say, paperback novels.  You don’t necessarily want to stuff your house with those, and black-and-white text is the order of the day.  But, alas, I read few novels.  Most of the books I read I want to keep and I haven’t been willing to commit to building a Kindle – and Kindle-only – library.

But I would like a personal library of magazines and newspapers and I don’t have one right now.  That means that for magazines and newspapers, the iPad may be an upgrade.  We get three newspapers a day at my house and I see a fourth at work.  A critical issue here is sharing and pricing.  I am the only one who looks seriously in my house at The Wall Street Journal, so an iPad-version might be superior to the paper version and I could abandon the dead-trees version.  I recycle that version each day and it is instantly lost to me; it would be great to have ongoing ready access to the entire run that I have received – marked up and tagged by me.  An iPad version might do exactly that, and with more color to boot.  But this wouldn’t work for The New York Times – paper version shared in my house – or The Financial Times – paper version shared at work.  I can’t just abandon paper and switch to iPad-digital, so the interaction between the paper subscription rules and the iPad version will be interesting.

But for me – and now we head deep inside academia – the killer app for the iPad may be annotatable pdfs.  I read lots of draft papers and newly issued legal opinions.  I don’t keep very many of them on paper but that would be convenient on a digital device.  If I can read those on a great screen and mark them up, I may be sold.  Of course, you can typically read draft academic papers for free, and federal opinions join the public domain the instant they are created, so the content industry won’t ride to profitability from my killer app for the iPad.

What about yours?  What’s your killer app for the iPad?