Three Ways the iPad Breaks Apple's Brand

Last Updated Apr 8, 2010 6:13 AM EDT

Reactions to the Apple (APPL) iPad have been fascinating. On Monday, I mentioned how the device was emblematic of a cultural divide over the concept of central control. Now as I look at additional takes -- from the likes of Ars Technica and Dave Winer, as well as comments on the latter's piece -- it's clear that Apple risks damage to its traditional brand identity.

The iPad continues a strategic change for Apple. What was its traditional brand? It was this: Apple turned creative outsiders into tribal insiders. (The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on Apple as a "religion" for artists.)

Communications creatives of all stripes -- writers, artists, designers, photographers, videographers -- had long been corporate underdogs. Managers ran the show. Technical staff invented products and ran IT systems. Almost as an afterthought, those with the requisite talent and training were told to "do something creative," such as create eye-catching displays or write copy that tugged the heart. Even when the creative process was the product (think entertainment media), those at the top of the power pyramid "knew" better what was best.

Apple was different. The Mac didn't require people to become something they weren't. Apple understood aesthetics and why creatives wanted them. More importantly, the Mac was a platform that supported creative tools. Finally creative people had their own technical landscape and gained respect. After all, what they now did was use complex software on a computer, so it must have been real.

However, Apple has moved away from that core positioning. The iPod was only for media consumption, not creation. Core customers still loved the cool and well-designed product, because they controlled the media mix and made the devices theirs. Then came the iPhone â€" still a tool they could use, and it let them communicate.

Apple's iPad brand problem is the focus on media consumption. One response to Winer's post called the device a "printer," which was a brilliant observation. And yet, because the iPad looks like a computer, people expect it to act like one. At the product launch, Steve Jobs called the iPad a different type of device. I take him at his word. The iPad is supposed to be companion to a computer, not a computer on its own.

We now arrive at a gap between intent and expectation, which, in turn, strains the corporate brand. I cannot remember another recent Apple product that created so many serious second thoughts by core customers. People explain the product shortcomings in various ways, but I think they fall into three brand-related categories:

  1. Apple no longer provides what you need. Apple's identity involves products that come out of the box working. With the iPad, people are frustrated over some things it lacks â€" USB, a camera, a regular keyboard, even a cloth, standard for the iPhone, to keep the smudge-inviting screen clean. Most of criticisms stem from a difference of perception -- whether you regard the iPad as a device of creation or consumption.
  2. Apple leaves its core on the outside. As a consumption device, the iPad focuses on the audience, not the people who write, film, photograph, design, play, and direct. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. However, it viscerally communicates that creatives are just part of the audience, not their own tribe. Even the lack of Adobe (ADBE) Flash support exacerbates this, as it leaves the Faithful outside the full web. There are workarounds, but since when was Apple about workarounds?
  3. Apple's design game is off. The company's usually near perfect pitch design is off the mark. Most reviews I've seen refer to it being just a bit too heavy to keep in the hand. Ars Technica suggests that you have to think to make the iPad do what you want, which is the opposite of Apple brand identity. Ars reviewers called the iPad case "cheap and poorly designed" and said that the book view "has a cheesy looking outline that's meant to evoke a hardcover binding and some unflipped pages, but it ends up looking like something out of a bad Hypercard stack." Run iPhone apps in enlarged mode and you get pixilation. Apple designed the product for mere consumers, not pros who appreciate design.
I don't mean any of this as a slam, and I don't know that Apple has another long-run strategic choice. The fan base is of a limited size. Investor demand for constant growth requires larger audiences for a mature company. Apple must look at either consumers or enterprise users -- consumers being a better fit -- and a different approach to business. In the process of shifting attention, Apple could lose a grip on its most important asset: the well wishes of its most loyal customer base.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.