If you go to Apple's site, the company defines its latest creation thusly: "Our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price." That sounds pretty exciting, but leading with this statement doesn't tell you what the iPad is or the problems it solves. It's not as powerful or versatile as a full PC, yet it's also much more than an eReader or portable media player. In other words, the iPad has a bit of an identity crisis that Apple will need to solve if it's going to convince consumers that it's worth $499.
The beauty of mobile technology is that there’s room for more than one type of product to succeed with consumers. That's why I think it was a mistake for Steve Jobs to compare the iPad, which is really a new type of product, to netbooks. During his speech he said that netbooks “aren’t better at anything. They’re slow, have clunky displays, and run clunky old PC software. They’re just cheap laptops." Actually, that's exactly what has made netbooks so popular; they can do almost anything a regular laptop can do while being more affordable and portable. Plus, many of them last 8 hours or more on a charge.
The iPad is better defined as an evolutionary step beyond the one-trick-pony eReader, a device that brings a more robust Web and entertainment experience to the palm of your hand (even if it doesn't fit in your pocket). For example, I've tried navigating the Barnes & Noble nook using that secondary color screen, which just feels unintuitive and needlessly complicated. Other eReaders like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader Daily Edition also suddenly seem like yesterday's technology.
Unlike some other pundits, I don't think calling the iPad an iPod touch on steroids is an insult. The product has been very successful, and it builds on the multitouch experience Apple pioneered with the iPhone. The iPad is also a bigger and better iPod touch in that it brings Apple's App Store (140,000 apps and counting) to a bigger canvas. I'm really impressed with how good many of these programs look when you enlarge them with a touch or swipe. Apple's partners also did a good job yesterday at demonstrating how apps specifically designed for the iPad will take the user experience to the next level, especially The New York Times and Gameloft's first-person shooter, N.O.V.A..
What I think Apple should avoid are comparisons with full-fledged Macs or Windows PCs. Yes, e-mail, photos, and Web surfing are all more robust here than on the iPod touch, thanks to a new version of the iPhone OS (3.2) that optimizes these apps for the iPad's bigger screen. But the touch typing experience is mediocre, and no one is going to schlepp that iPad Keyboard Dock ($69) on business trips or to classes. I do like the iPad Case ($39) that props the iPad up for more comfortable typing, but I think that should be included. Also, the iWork apps ($9.99 each) seem like kind of a reach given the iPad's target audience.
So is the iPad a tweener? Definitely. But it's the first device I've seen other than a netbook that sits between smart phones and PCs that has a lot of potential. I would personally like to see a lot of the iPad's functionality built into the next generation of Macs, maybe even in a dual-boot environment. But Apple deserves credit for doing something Microsoft has not: making tablets relevant for the masses.
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.