iOS 4.2 is a whole new iPad?

It's been 2 weeks since Apple released iOS 4 (technically iOS 4.2.1) for iPad -- almost 5 months after iOS 4 for iPhone and 7 months since iPad was first released with iOS 3.2 -- and one of the more extreme criticisms hurtled its way is "why didn't iPad ship with iOS 4 to begin with?!"

Short answer: because the iPad hardware was ready and iOS 4 wasn't.

Long answer: keep reading after the break. (You've been warned).

Opportunity cost means if you only have $2 and you buy a soda, you can't also spend that $2 on a chocolate bar. You have to choose. Likewise if Apple has finite resources and time and they spend them on feature A, they can't also spend those same resources and time on feature B. They also have to choose.

Users, of course, want what we want and now, and this is nothing new to iOS. When the first iPhone shipped in 2007 it was lambasted in some quarters for not having the functionality of Palm's Treo. If someone's old Treo could do something, like MMS or copy/paste, why couldn't Apple's shiny new iPhone? Never mind iPhone could do something the Treo couldn't do -- run a stable, easy to use, multitouch UI. If Apple had spent their time feature matching the Treo or Windows Mobile, if they'd done MMS or copy/paste and not done multitouch, then in 2007 we would have gotten an Apple Treo or Windows Mobile device, not an iPhone. They chose -- forgive me! -- to think different. Or re-think different.

The same is true for Palm with webOS -- people complained about missing features like video recording, but what existing feature of webOS would they have given up for it? Cards? Synergy? Android had limited app storage and inconsistent UI but should Google have traded those for their mobile services innovations? Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, instead of re-treading the Windows Mobile of old for the umpteenth time, is a fresh, innovative take on the smartphone that's criticized for missing 3rd party multitasking and copy/paste (sound familiar?).

But Apple, Google, and Microsoft (and even Palm now with HP) have billions and billions of dollars. Can't they just throw engineers at any problem? Double teams? Triple teams? Unfortunately great engineers aren't robots (don't tell them!). You can't manufacture engineers, they don't scale linearly, and the competition for them between those billion dollar companies is fierce. Bigger groups don't always better products make anyway. Added complexity does not efficiency promote.

Apple runs like a startup. Small groups, intensely focused, engineers often moving to projects as priorities and schedules dictate. They spend far less money than most of their competitors and earn far, far more profits. So it seems to work for them. (Or at least under Steve Jobs it reduces the bureaucracy, internecine feuding, and design-by-committee that has plagued some competing products.)

What about time? Couldn't Apple have taken more time and waited to release the iPad until they had iOS 4.2 ready for it? Couldn't they have released the iPad in November 2010 in time for the holidays rather than April? Sure. They could also have waited until June 2010 to release the first iPhone so it would have multitasking out the gate. They probably wouldn't have lost first mover advantage -- no one was really moving in the smartphone or tablet space pre iPhone and iPad -- but who would that have benefited? Not the hundreds of millions of iOS users and the 7-million odd iPad users who bought their devices prior to iOS 4. We would have lost months or years of use and the market inarguably would not be where it is today absent the push Apple's iPhone and iPad have given it.

"Great artists ship," is a favorite quote of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and the iPhone with iOS 1 and iPad with iOS 3.2 were fantastic, groundbreaking devices when they shipped. The hardware was top notch, the user experience revolutionary, and in many ways years and months later the industry is still catching up.

That's why -- crazy as it sounds -- it took 1 year for 3rd party apps, 2 years for copy/paste, and 3 years for 3rd party multitasking (1st party multitasking on iOS has been phenomenal since launch in 2007). And that's why it will probably (and hopefully only!) take 4 years for elegant notifications.

Moreover, iOS 4.2 was and is a free update. Apple didn't make anyone buy new software or new hardware or pay anything more than the internet bandwidth to download it. When iPad hardware was ready, it shipped. When iOS 4 for iPad was ready, it shipped.

Apple deserves criticism for many things -- why throw in AirPlay and AirPrint when they didn't have time to finish them by their self-appointed deadline? -- but not shipping iOS 4 for iPad back in April 2010 isn't one of them.