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Steve Jobs: The Tablet is Going to Fail (video)

The iPad is now known as one of the best-selling gadgets of of all time, so it might surprise you to learn that at one point Steve jobs didn’t think there was any market for it.

This dates back to 2003, when Mr Jobs was interviewed at the first AllThingsDigital conference. Walt Mossberg asks about Apple’s plans for mobile devices, namely tablets. Mr Jobs first says that Apple has no plans for a tablet and then goes on to explain why the tablet market was doomed.

You can catch his answer starting at about 7:30:

He’s not wrong.

While some might post this video so we can point a finger and laugh, I’m sharing it because it shows just how much everything has changed in the past 10 years.

Almost all of what made the iPad possible was invented after this interview, and very little was invented just to be used in a tablet.

For example, the original iPad’s price and battery life both came about as a result of the rise of netbooks. That was a market segment that didn’t exist in 2003, so there was no way to foresee how it would drive manufacturers to improve battery life and reduce the cost of components and manufacturing.

The iPad also benefited from smartphones and the way they drove improvements in touchscreens. Again, that is a market that largely didn’t exist in 2003, so there was no way to predict how smartphones would make onscreen keyboards possible.

Did you catch the part of the video when they discuss writing on a screen? That tells me that in 2003 they were assuming that you couldn’t type on a touchscreens, which means you needed a physical keyboard. That matches with what I can recall from that era.

If you have the time, I recommend watching the entire interview. It is a window into a different era, a time when there was no MP3 market, no Youtube, and almost no mobile device market (compared to today, at least).

The above video shows us just how wrong we can be when trying to come up with a simple explanation for things like Jobs being wrong when he said that tablets would fail. He wasn’t wrong in 2003, and it’s not valid to say he was wrong based on trends which didn’t happen until after he made the statement.

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Random Person October 12, 2013 um 1:15 pm

I don’t think I agree with this interpretation. That Steve Jobs was super sneaky. I wouldn’t put it past him to outright lie in order to keep his real plans under wraps. I think everything he was saying was misinformation to throw his competitors off his trail.

The Commons October 12, 2013 um 1:37 pm

Ah, the "Even when he’s wrong, he’s right" theory.

The Commons October 12, 2013 um 1:48 pm

If nothing else, it shows that Steve wasn’t quite the visionary that many make him out to be. The assumption (as you point out) that battery life wouldn’t improve substantially in the future was highly questionable, given that the migration from NiMH to Li-ion chemistry in laptop batteries had only recently begun.

Nate Hoffelder October 12, 2013 um 3:24 pm

He didn’t say anything about battery life; that was me. He raised the issues of cost and touchscreen functionality. And from what I can tell the big improvements didn’t just come from improvements to battery tech but from the gadgets becoming more energy efficient. And wasn’t that more market driven than anything?

Greg Strandberg October 12, 2013 um 3:41 pm

You still look like an ass tryin' to take a picture with the damn things.

Nate Hoffelder October 12, 2013 um 3:53 pm

LOL I can’t argue with that.

Mackay Bell October 12, 2013 um 4:08 pm

I think he’s insightful, honest and sneaky. He didn’t say tablets will never work, he says that Microsoft’s tablet isn’t going to work. Which is correct. He says the emphasis on handwriting recognition is wrong, which is he also right about. He also says they’re likely to be too expensive, which they all were until the iPad. He also says that people are going to use phones for most PDA functions. True again. He remains pretty silent on the topic of using tablets to read. Which is clearly their best feature. So I think he was truthful, while also trying to misdirect competitors. Clearly by this time, Apple was already well into making the iPhone and odds are he knew that the iPad would work, if they could bring down costs and avoid labeling it as a handwriting device. Why should he tip off his competitors? I think this just proves again what a visionary he was. (Even the sneaky part.)

Nate Hoffelder October 12, 2013 um 4:28 pm

You could be right on this. Jobs is both smart enough and sneaky enough to critique a competitor’s product without mentioning how his company was working to fix the issues he identified.

And Apple did have an iPad prototype in 2004, so it’s not out of the question for him to have seen it before that interview:

But to be fair to him, it’s also possible that he really did have no intention of releasing a tablet because of the issues with the current tech. He might not have changed his mind until the tech was finally there.

Mackay Bell October 12, 2013 um 7:06 pm

It’s also pretty amazing he was able to do all this seemingly on the fly. He doesn’t hesitate, he seems to be just riffing. But, if you assume for a moment he knew exactly what the iPad would be, and that it was years off, his answers brilliantly dismiss the potential of the market while laying the groundwork for Apple’s "solution." Apple is great technology, but it’s also brilliant marketing. Often I feel they "win" not just because they have great gadgets, but because they frame the debate about what the gadget should be. Remember his PC’s are trucks line? How much of that is a self-fulfilling prediction? Apple could have included handwriting technology in the original iPad, but they left it out for a reason. To indicate to people it wasn’t what the device was for. Likewise, Jobs made a huge point about how cheap the iPad was "at a magical price." While it seemed like a reasonable bargain at the time, it was hardly cheap. But it was cheap enough to be positioned as a laptop alternative. Why spend $750 on a laptop when you can buy and iPad for $500 and do most of what a laptop does? His point about rich people buying three devices is very cunning. The iPad became a replacement for the laptop for many people, thus solving the problem he highlighted. Also, it shows how at that time his focus was on the smart phone, which is exactly where it needed to be. Without the groundwork laid by the iPhone, it’s unlikely the iPad would have been such a sudden success.

Matthew October 13, 2013 um 3:26 am


I think in Steve’s defense, if you’ve ever read his biography, he said that even the plans and development of the iPad existed way before the iPhone–only after the touch screen prototype for the iPad was somewhat finished than the iPad is "shelved" [as far as I concern, creating a tablet is one of Steve’s lifelong dream]. He said the same thing in the D in 2010. I’d rather agree to say that he is quite tricky: he sometimes said publicly that something doesn’t work only for him to provide the solution (the tablet will be the awesome example). I also agree with Mackay, Steve merely hides the details on what his company is doing.

Nate Hoffelder October 13, 2013 um 11:39 am

There was a prototype, yes. We saw the photos. But how close was that prototype to being ready to be produced before focus shifted to the iPhone, and would it really have been the ipad as we know it today?

I tend to think it wasn’t ready. It’s my guess that, had the iPad prototype gone to market first, it would have been a $1500 monstrosity with a 12″ screen and not the svelte cheap iPad we got in 2010. That earlier iPad would have been a competitor to Apple’s laptops. It would have gone after that same tiny niche market that Windows tablets were going after.

Basically Apple’s 2004 era tablet was just as bad as what everyone else was making – so Apple didn’t make it.

I also think the switch to a smartphone was genius. It let Apple launch a product that (if it had failed) could have been written off as an experiment in new niche. It also let Apple delay the release of the SDK and app store until after the iPhone was clearly a success. The iPad, on the other hand, needed an app store (and a lot of touch friendly apps) at launch; it would have failed without one.

New Name Same Guy October 13, 2013 um 3:45 am

LOL, I will never believe any of you recognize how radical Jobs was until you give him proper credit for inventing digital media with the Mac and the LaserWriter. Don’t forget Apple invested 20% in Adobe when it was a startup. Jobs was fired before the "plan succeeded" but there was no one else involved with more influence on what subsequently happened.

Nate Hoffelder October 13, 2013 um 5:18 pm

He was so radical that he emphasized the Lisa and the Mac over Apple’s then successful Apple II.

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