MediaPostNews – Online Media Daily

by Joe Mandese

When Apple chief Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, he called the new digital gadget a “third-category” device that would not compete with consumer demand for some of Apple’s core products, especially laptop computers and smart phones. But some new research conducted by a highly regarded academic team suggests some trade-offs are inevitable, and that one unintended consequence could be that some consumers will replace their smart phones with iPads and downgrade to a not-so-smart cell phone.

Needless to say, no one knows exactly how consumers will behave when the iPad finally begins shipping the first version of its new iPads tomorrow, but researchers in the Insight and Research group at Ball State University’s Center for Media Design, conducted a small, qualitative study to at least try and understand how consumer attitudes about the new gadgets might shape their media marketplace behaviors. And the big takeaway is that Apple, for all the research and development it undoubtedly put behind the iPad, may have misjudged the degree to which some consumers use the iPad as a replacement devices for other things.

The main factor, the researchers said, may not be the devices themselves, so much as the hefty cost of the wireless data plan consumers would need to sign up for to get maximum utility out of the iPad as a networking and communications devices.

“We think there could be some unforeseen ripple effects in the marketplace,” said Jennifer Milks, a project manager at the Center for Media Design, who conducted the research along with the center’s Director of Insight & Research Mike Bloxham.

Milks said the team was surprised to hear that some consumers might plan to downgrade from smart phones to cell phones, because of the way Apple has been positioning the iPad as an incremental device, but she noted that it makes sense given the high cost of 3G wireless data plans that would be necessary to support both a smart phone and an iPad among consumers who own both. While the research still is theoretical as the iPads haven’t yet hit the marketplace, Milks said consumer attitudes suggest the iPad could win the battle for 3G data plans, but that consumers would still need cell phone for making phone calls and simple SMS texting features.

“We did not expect to hear that,” she said, adding, “This could save the cell phone.”

The absolute degree of that effect isn’t clear, because nobody knows how many iPads Apple will cell, how many of them opt for the more expensive versions with 3G capabilities, and for the data plans necessary to support them. But based on the Ball State findings, it looks like Jobs’ claim that the iPad is a new, “third category” that will not cannibalize on others, may not necessarily be the case.

Milks and Bloxham are quick to note that the study was highly qualitative, and was based on attitudes to a product that most people have not actually touched. None of the 15 consumers participating in the Ball State study touched one. They were each shown a video of the opening keynote that Jobs gave introducing the device. The video, as all things designed by Apple, is excellently produced and demonstrates the features of the device that is sure to make many people covet it, or to at least understand why others do.

The consumers participating in the Ball State study felt that way, even if they had no plans to actually purchase and iPad and felt it didn’t fit into their particular media lifestyle, they still saw the beautiful, state-of-the-art design of the iPad as its dominant feature.

“As ever, Apple has played to its design strengths, and those interviewed were often heavily influenced by the visual appeal of the device itself and the interfaces they saw presented,” reads one of the key findings from the Ball State study. “Not only is the device stylish and appealing but the design also provokes a sense of seamless ease of use and portability.”

While the study isn’t necessarily projectable, or scientifically predictable, it is part of a long history or research – especially highly regarded ethnographic research – about how people use technology to consume media that has been conducted by the university over the years, and it is one of the tools it uses to educate students and in its work with the private sector to understand the trade-offs of media design.

“There was no real debate about the cool factor of this device,” Milks noted, adding that, “even people who said they don’t want it and it doesn’t fit into their lives, saw it as a phenomenal and successful technology.”

Some of the negatives, or at least confusing elements surrounding the iPad introduction have more to do with its initial features than its long-term prospects. Consumers in the Ball State study echoed concerns of some of the tech industry pundits about why the initial version doesn’t include a USB port, for example, which would seem to be important for consumers who want to connect it to other devices such as printers, or to download things to other storage devices.

Milks said Ball State will conduct some follow up research with some of the consumers who participated in the initial study once the iPad is available for them to actually hold and experience first-hand, and would share those findings with the industry later.

“We’re doing this, because we know that the market that Apple is going to live and die by isn’t necessarily the pundits, but the consumers who will react to it. What we’re trying to do is to understand the attitudinal landscape that the iPad will be in,” she said.