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Could the iPad Shred MacBook Sales?

Something tells me the iPad is going to be a very hot back-to-school purchase. Maybe too hot for Apple’s liking. The Cupertino company sold 500,000 devices in one week, and during the first five days Steve Jobs said iPad owners downloaded more than 3.5 million apps and about 600,000 iBooks. Yes, the economy is turning a corner, and the latest MacBooks pack a lot of power and battery life, but that $499 price point may prove awfully tempting to a lot of students and parents—and maybe even road warriors looking for a do-it-all device.

Is the iPad really good enough to be someone’s primary PC? In my opinion, no. At least not yet. Entering more than a line or two of text using the on-screen keyboard isn’t fun, and I would prefer to have a webcam for video chats. But there’s a reason I got called out on our blog for not typing with all ten fingers when I demonstrated Apple’s slate on video. Owners are passionate about this device, and like the iPhone before it, they’ll likely figure out a way to build up enough speed and accuracy that they may leave their laptop behind. As for the missing webcam, maybe Apple left this feature off the first version because the more the iPad behaves like a PC the less enthused buyers would be about Macs.

You also have to think about what’s coming this fall.
This feature alone will make the iPad five times better, with the ability to stream Pandora while you’re surfing the web, and to easily switch between multiple open applications (say, Pages and Numbers). In other words, the iPad will act more like a real PC. The upcoming iPhone OS 4 update will also bring a unified inbox and support for Exchange 2010. Add it all up and it’s easy to see why analysts are saying the iPad will cut into netbook sales.

Speaking of netbooks, it was about a year ago when Intel estimated that this category was cannibalizing full-size laptop sales at a rate of about 20 percent. Netbook revenue remains strong (to the tune of $13.3 million this year, according to DisplaySearch), but Intel’s 2010 crop of Core chips have seemed to diminish the cannibalization threat. In fact, Atom-related revenue slumped 19 percent in the first quarter.

The iPad presents a different sort of cross-category challenge for Apple. It’s not just a shrunken notebook; it’s an exciting new touch computing paradigm that more and more people will want to try. And it remains to be seen whether those buyers will continue to pony up for Macs, pair the iPad with a lower cost Windows machine, or just view the slate as “good enough” as is.

This is going to sound strange, but Apple may be forced to subtly badmouth one of its own products in order to prevent it from stealing serious Mac thunder. And it’s a fine line the company must walk. At the same time, it’s attempting to convince the masses that the iPad wipes the floor with netbooks, and it has to be careful to position its first tablet as the perfect complement to—and not a substitute for—a less cool but more capable MacBook or MacBook Pro. Only time will tell if the iPad is too slick for Apple’s own good.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.