Unless you're dead, you know that Apple announced their perspective on tablet computing today with their iPad. This was much anticipated with rumors swirling for months, and the result has been greeted with either awe, disappointment, or disdain, depending on what the person was expecting.
Here's the thing about Apple. They do not do what people want or expect. While some might see that as a bad thing, it seems to work for them. People wanted something revolutionary. They wanted a $2,000 laptop in a touch tablet for $299 with a magical interface. Instead, Apple gave them a giant iPod touch for $500. Many yawned and said, "What's that good for?" Those people are still stuck in traditional thinking. They are thinking in traditional product categories (i.e. cell phone, media player, netbook, laptop, desktop). What Apple has done is create a whole new category of device.
You could see the iPad as a media player or ebook, but that's limiting its purpose. It's more of a computer than that, allowing you to work on spreadsheets, presentations, word processing, and other computing tasks. But it's not quite the same kind of a computer as a netbook or laptop. Traditional computers are complicated devices. What Apple has done with iPad is create the first real computing appliance. Think of it like a toaster or fridge or multi-functional kitchen tool. Like those, it just needs to work without fuss or maintenance. No cryptic commands or software to install or viruses to worry about. It needs to be simple and clean, super easy to use, and fun. Traditional laptops and netbooks are such heavy maintenance they are only fun for geeks. It's like the difference between being a car mechanic and a driver.
The real dilemma for a tablet like this is defining the market. Who is this for? Tablets have been done, but done poorly. Most take a desktop OS (like Windows) and add touch or stylus capability. The result is a kludge. It's not any easier to use, it's still expensive, and the awkward form factor means it's not good as a traditional laptop either. It's the old "jack of all trades, master of none" problem.
Apple has chosen to address this in a few key ways. First, they focused on price. Price is critical for a product like this. Too low and it's not economically worth making. Too high and it competes with laptops and no one will buy it. I believe Apple could have released this a year ago, but held off until they could get the price point just right. $500 is an excellent price. They aren't giving it away, and certainly not everyone can afford this, but it fits in well in between the $200 touch and the $999 MacBook.
Second, they focused on what a tablet-form computer does well. It's light, portable, and handy. It's quick on and off, and the large screen is ideal for things like browsing the web, reading books, and watching video. It makes an incredible calendar and digital photo frame. They did not try and hamper this with a physical keyboard. They did not kludge on a traditional laptop operating system. They did not try to make this do everything. They kept it simple, so that the functions it does, it does extraordinarily well, even better than a laptop. (Reading a web page with this is an order of magnitude better than any laptop and even a desktop with a large screen simply because of the elegant touch interface.) It's full of nice touches: hand an iPad to a colleague and the display reorients itself to be right-side-up for that person. There's no wrong way to hold the thing: use it in whatever way feels right to you. It's visually designed so everything looks gorgeous. (That may not seem important, but it's part of what makes a device like this a joy to use.)
Third, they have leveraged the existing iPhone/touch platform, by making this run all those 140,000+ apps, plus new ones written for the larger iPad screen. That's a huge existing infrastructure. No one else who has tried a tablet has had a platform like that to build upon. This is already Internet-savy with all the social media apps it needs. (Imagine checking Twitter or Facebook on this thing while watching TV: similar to doing it on an iPhone, but the bigger screen makes it even easier.) And don't forget the games: iPhone games -- and eventually iPad games -- will rock on the larger display.
Finally, Apple hasn't forgotten productivity. If this tablet was merely a media consumption device (i.e. a media player), it wouldn't be nearly as significant. It would be nice, though perhaps expensive. But Apple has completely rewritten their iWork suite for the iPad. That means full word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. This not only signifies that this is a "real" laptop capable of getting work done, but Apple has set an example of how such software can function on the device. All those thousands of iPhone app developers are now working frantically on rewriting their apps to take advantage of the iPad's larger screen and faster processor.
The result is a simple and elegant device. It feels like it's no more complicated than a magazine. But the full color touch screen means you can interact with what you see. You move pictures around with your fingertip. You tap an email to open it. Touch a video to play it or pause it. It's natural, intuitive, and effortless. That makes it fun.
This isn't a traditional laptop. It really is just a big iPhone, but the larger screen size changes the paradigm far more than you'd think. Being able to see more at once gives you more power. Applications can be more complicated. Ebooks can be read at full size. Magazines can contain audio and video. This is the future we saw on Star Trek decades ago made real.
How useful will an iPad be? That depends on your lifestyle. If you don't have a computer at all, it's useless. (Apple products require a computer as a base to sync information.) If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, you'll want this, but you may not need it. If, on the other hand, you have neither, or have been considering a touch, an iPad might just be the ticket. It can do many of the functions of a traditional laptop (not everything, but many). It can do just about everything you can do on an iPhone or iPod touch, but easier, since the bigger screen makes you more productive and efficient.
In my case, I had been considering a touch even though I have an iPhone. I use my iPhone constantly. A touch would give me additional storage, allow me a second device to read in bed, play games with without running down my iPhone's battery, etc. It didn't make a lot sense since the form factors are the same, but I was still tempted. Now I'm seriously thinking that an iPad makes more sense. It's that thing in-between a laptop and a phone. It's perfect for a guest computer (visitors could easily check their email, flight schedule, etc.) or for surfing the web while you watch TV. I can imagine using the case to prop it up in the kitchen while I follow the directions to a recipe on the screen (and even watch an embedded video demonstrating the cooking technique I'm trying to do). With something like Slingbox running on it, it's a portable TV! Or how about this: instead of buying those expensive DVD systems for your car, why not get a couple of these for the kids? You can store movies and TV shows and music and games on them, good for infinite hours of entertainment. They'd cost less than an in-car system and can be used anywhere, not just while driving. (Kids could do homework on them, too.)
In short, no one knows what this is for. The apps haven't been written yet. No, it's probably not essential (everything really essential in our lives has already been invented -- if it hasn't, we'd be dead). But I think the way the iPad works will be so wonderful, so natural and beautiful, that everyone will want one. And the reasonable price means that many people can afford one. (Why buy one $1500 laptop when you could get three iPads for the whole family?)
I picture these as being awesome for schools (goodbye physical textbooks), terrific for executives who don't need a "full" laptop, elderly people befuddled by technology or with poor eyesight (just make the book font larger), frequent travelers who find traditional laptops too heavy and overkill most of the time, presentation makers, doctors or consultants or salespeople (pretty much any person who needs lots of info at their fingertips and doesn't want to fuss with a clumsy laptop), and probably a few dozen other categories of people I've left out. The iPad isn't for everyone and that's fine. It doesn't need to be. But many will adopt it, I am sure. The iPad's going to be huge. It could even be bigger than the iPhone: more people want a cell phone than a pad, but there's a lot more competition in the cell phone area. Nothing really competes with the iPad (netbooks are the closest thing, but far inferior on specs and usability). Apple can own this market since they created it.
Sure, there are things Apple has left out. There's no camera, an odd omission, but no doubt due to cost cutting to reach the magical $500 price point. Apple will probably add that in a future model as manufacturing prices come down. Some are critical that it doesn't support Flash, but I never expected it do so (Apple does not like to support other company's proprietary standards and really would like Flash banned from the Internet and I full support them as I abhor Flash). Apple also does not support add-on memory cards, a removable battery, or apps not installed via the App Store. Those things were a given, and people who expected something else were deceiving themselves. Some are critical of the virtual keyboard, but people were worried about that before the iPhone and now many prefer it. (I personally feel that a software keyboard is fine for limited use, which is all most people would use this device for. If you really want to type, you'll use an external keyboard.) There are some dumb jokes about the name, iPad, but it really does make sense when Apple has the iPod. It's not my favorite name, but it's growing on me. (I wasn't a giant fan of the name "iPod" in the beginning, either.) As for most other criticisms, don't forget that this is just the 1.0 version of the device. In a few years this will be even better and sell for $200!
My only criticism is that I had hoped Apple would create an ecosystem for digital magazines. I had hoped there would be a new digital magazine format and a store for selling them, so that I could sell my magazine that way. Unfortunately, while Apple announced a book store, it appears that magazines aren't a part that (it's looking like only the big publishers can put their stuff on the store, though hopefully that's just temporary). Magazines can still be created as individual applications and sold via the App Store, but that's a lot more work than just distributing content. Because Apple hasn't created their own system, the magazine market will end up fractured, with everyone doing their own thing: not as good as the more unified book market. Still, this is a minor quibble, and just because nothing was announced today doesn't mean it will never happen. If this tablet takes off and magazine publishers find it lucrative, it could spark a whole new industry. I can't wait!
But I must. The iPad doesn't ship for 60 days!