Opinion: Will the iPad be another Windows 95?

IT needs to pay attention to Apple's latest gadget

My barber doesn't usually ask me about technology, but as he cut my hair (or what little I have) last week, he asked me about Apple's iPad.

Even before Apple showed off the upcoming tablet computer, I had ample evidence that it was going to garner a lot of interest from mainstream consumers. Journalists were asking me to comment on Apple's tablet long before the company was acknowledging that it had one in the works. Rumors were feeding on themselves, and the actual announcement became a major media event. I fully expect consumers to line up to buy the iPad when Apple launches it later this year.

My barber's question got me thinking about the last time a technology product had received so much interest from mainstream consumers. The iPhone certainly qualifies, but I'm hard pressed to think of other recent examples. Launches of various game consoles have generated long lines, but most of the people queuing up were hard-core gamers, not mainstream consumers. It's easy to get the tech enthusiasts to line up for the latest and greatest shiny toy, but getting the mass-market consumer excited is another story.

No, other than the iPhone, the last time I can recall mainstream consumers standing in line all night to purchase technology was the Windows 95 launch. IT shops should consider what happened back then and be prepared, because the iPad could well debut on their networks soon after launch, whether they're ready or not.

Back when Microsoft launched Windows 95, I was in Seattle with some folks from Microsoft. We heard that people were lining up that evening to buy Windows 95 upgrades, and I was completely surprised. After all, people generally stand in line only for things that are hard to get, like World Series tickets or toilet paper in the old Soviet Union. No one was forecasting a shortage of Windows 95 CDs.

Enthusiasts, the sort of people who install an operating system on a Saturday afternoon for fun, might stand on line for a copy of an operating system, but pretty much all the enthusiasts back then already had a copy of Windows 95 by launch day. Normal people don't wait on line overnight to buy operating systems. Clearly, I hadn't factored in just how effective Microsoft's all-out marketing campaign for Windows 95 had been.

We headed over to an Egghead Software store, and there was indeed a long line snaking away from the door. I talked to some of the people who were waiting and found that most of them were indeed mainstream consumers. Many of them told me that they planned not only to use Windows 95 at home but to bring it to their offices as well and install it on their work PCs. (Just how over-the-top the frenzy was for Windows 95 is best illustrated by this tidbit: At the analyst firm I was working at back then, we had reports of folks who bought upgrades even though they did not own a PC. If you can sell an operating system to someone who doesn't own a CPU to run it on, you might want to move to the arctic and try your hand at selling ice.)

Many users did follow through and brought Windows 95 to work with them. One enterprise I worked with back then was planning a Windows 95 migration when it discovered that users had taken matters into their own hands and beaten IT to the punch; nearly half of the computers in the enterprise had Windows 95 loaded on them before IT had loaded the first official copy.

I don't know that we're going to see that same level of consumer uptake of the iPad. For one thing, the tablet PC is a lot more expensive than an operating system upgrade. But you can bet that a lot of consumers are going to buy this device, and some of those people will want to use it at work.

IT needs to carefully study computing appliances like the iPad so it can establish policies on use and integration in advance.

If you don't believe me, ask your barber.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret LLC. His weblog can be found at Gartenblog.net. Contact him at mgartenberg@optonline.net.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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