iPad Mini, Macbook Air, iPod Classic: Apple and iterating toward the market

I wanted that first iPod, but I thought other people wouldn't.

I'd spent most of my childhood reading MacMall back-issues and looking longingly at Peformas and Newtons, and when the iPod came out being a Mac fan was still a little weird in that way. It was like driving a Saab—it was hard, by then, to say what was better about the experience, and you were left boring acquaintances about how neat it was that the ignition system was over by the shifter.

So I wanted the iPod, but I was realistic about how much that said for it. It was a weird mp3 player with some great design elements, built around what seemed, at the time, like characteristically weird Apple priorities.

It famously missed on the geek priorities—no wireless, less space than a Nomad, Score: 2, redundant. But it also whiffed on the broader mp3-player-buying public priorities, at least as we understood them then: It pushed prices up, not down; it focused on transfer speed, a complaint I'd never even heard leveled at an MP3 player before, over compatibility; it didn't make it any easier or cheaper to acquire music legally.

I had an Iomega HipZip at the time, which I bought because I'd always thought the Clik disks it used were really neat. My early-adopter friends had Rio 600s, and my Consumer Reports friends had Rio Volts.

So far as I could tell, all the iPod did was solve problems for the kind of people who'd grown up reading MacMall and still had that Power Mac G4 Cube poster on their wall where the Lamborghini Countach was supposed to go. It was beautiful, it put all your music into one place without requiring you to create your own byzantine and idiosyncratic directory system, it made you feel better about springing for a Mac with Firewire, and its scroll-wheel interface felt really nice to use and rapidly proved more functional than all the buttons on my HipZip.

It seemed like a good way to get rich people interested in buying a Mac, and it seemed like a good way to get Mac users thinking about that Cube instead of their black Laserline CD towers as the real home of their music collection.

I didn't want the Macbook Air, and I wasn't sure why anyone would

When the first Macbook Air was released I realized that the titanium Powerbook G4 was the last time I felt particularly concerned about the size of a laptop. One inch—a single inch—thick with a beautiful 15-inch screen seemed impossibly thin, and as Apple went to aluminum and other manufacturers caught up it eventually just seemed thin enough for anybody.

The dream: Full-featured computers you could carry around without making it abundantly clear you were carrying around a full-featured computer. Done.

The original Macbook Air was dog-slow. It had a tiny, dog-slow hard drive, and it didn't have an optical drive, and it was smaller than a Macbook Pro but considerably less fully-featured than the little 12-inch Powerbook G4s people were still carrying around.

It was expensive and beautiful, like the Cube, but it didn't feel like a premium product once the screen was on. It was good for doing the kind of work—freelance writing, maybe—that meant you would never be able to afford the kind of Russian-oligarch impracticality that came with using it.

It seemed like a good way to get Slashdot riled up about sheeple.

The iPad mini has problems, and I don't know what it is I'm not seeing

9to5Mac reports that the new iPad, whatever it's called, is going to start at $329. Others have reported it's going to have a less-impressive screen than the new generation of seven-inch Android and e-reader tablets, the Nexus and the Nook and the Kindle HD—1024x768, to go with its iPad 2 internals.

That's really expensive, and right now it seems like Apple's margins—the ones that allow them to do the kind of engineering that goes into the iPhone 5—are incompatible with the reader-sized tablet market. The dream of that market: Apps and games and your media, your books, your streaming video and your music, easily at hand, at a size that'll stay upright without a lot of intervention on your wrist's part and a price somewhere just north of an impulse buy.

The new iPad has the strongest ecosystem of any of its competitors, and it might just be that Apple's emphasizing that even more than we expect they will. But I've started to wonder what I'm not seeing yet about their priorities—where they plan on iterating to get themselves out of this near-mess.

Because I got the iPod and the Macbook Air wrong. Really, completely wrong.

With the iPod they aggressively made centralization and ease-of-use into mass-market virtues. They pushed iTunes onto every computer, they built a store in the product's image, they made a generation of teenagers into compulsive syncers.

With the Macbook Air they turned constraints that seemed frivolous and high-end in the first generation into the foundation of a new class of budget laptops—fast, small, always and instantly available. They had a vision for the product, and they started building it a generation or two before it fit into the market where it belonged.

With the iPad mini they're beginning with a screen that's a little larger than usual—to accomodate tablet apps as we know them, I guess—and their usual emphasis on design, and miniaturization, and the way it feels to use the product. The first-generation model, if the rumors are correct, is going to be panned—justly—for the price and the screen. It seems like a good way to get people who love iOS to do their reading on an iOS tablet.

But I think the real story—the real chance for pundits to eat crow or finally call the post-Jobs decline of Apple correctly—is what next year's iPad mini looks like.