The most interesting revelation from Tuesday’s D8 talk with Steve Jobs was that Apple started with the iPad, and shelved it to build the iPhone first. Many people suspected this was the case, but it was surprising to hear Jobs personally confirm it.

It’s tempting to wonder how differently things would have gone if the iPad did in fact come first. Whether by chance or by design, it seems quite clear that the order in which things ended up happening was the right one.

Many already believe that iPad will end up having a greater impact than iPhone has had, as it aims to redefine personal computing for the first time in more than two decades. But without the introduction and success of iPhone to pave the way, iPad may well have been too disruptive on its own to be anything close to a hit.

Apple’s success is largely rooted in the way it embraces familiarity, even with “revolutionary” products like iPad and iPhone. Remember how iPhone was positioned when announced in 2007:

  • An iPod
  • A phone
  • An “internet communicator”

Everyone knew and understood the first two. iPod was already a hit. Many people hated their phones and were waiting for someone like Apple to reinvent the experience. These traits were not only familiar, but anticipated.

The third—internet communicator—was much more foreign, and drew a lukewarm response compared to the other two as they were announced. But we know now that that third, unfamiliar trait is the one that has defined iPhone as a product and a platform. “iPod” and “Phone” are now but two icons among hundreds of thousands.

This is what Apple does so well: it brings you aboard with something familiar or intuitive, and then takes you someplace you wouldn’t have gone otherwise. It is also what Apple’s competitors and detractors never seem to understand. With every product launch, naysayers inevitably turn to a PowerPoint slide and note that company X’s product overview has more bullets. It’s not about the bullets. It’s about people wanting to use the product. Tapping into that is very, very hard—especially when refusing to acknowledge its importance. How they can continue to ignore it as Apple’s sales and market cap soar is a mystery.

iPad is neither an iPod nor a phone. It’s positioned as something entirely new between a laptop and a smartphone. iPhone gave users a much softer transition to this new interaction model, and built a tremendously successful platform off of it. People immediately understood iPad as a result. Without that transition, it risked being completely misunderstood: a new platform, form factor and interface that intentionally does less than a PC and has no third party apps. Not only would this have been a harder sell, but any lackluster reception would have completely tarnished an iPhone introduction later. We could be living in a much different world today.

Decisions like these also explain why Apple doesn’t talk. It not only has the stones to shelve a project like iPad, it has the patience to keep quiet until the goods are real—so that whenever it does come out, it’s special rather than just late. Imagine a company blabbing about a new computing platform and floating contrived After Effects demos to the press, only to cancel it and instead release something entirely different much later. Actually… there’s no need to imagine.

Whatever thinking went into the decision, iPad is unquestionably a stronger product thanks to those few years on the shelf.