Apple were in an incredibly difficult position with the iPad. Everyone knew they were making one and no one would be happy unless it was revolutionary. As someone unconvinced by the tablet offerings at CES earlier this month (they have clear application in industry and healthcare, but I can’t yet see a consumer need), I was curious about what Apple was bringing to the table. What they have produced is a superb technology showcase, but it’s also exactly the tablet everyone expected. First off, some people are griping about the name. Trade mark issues left them in an uncomfortable position since they don’t actually own the letter “i” (whatever they may argue) so I’m okay with the iPad. Yes, it may sound a lot like Star Trek’s PADD, but that’s clearly the influence they were channeling with the whole device.
For the technophile there’s a lot to love here: a great-looking 9.7″ touchscreen that’s fantastic for photos, a large and seemingly responsive onscreen keyboad, a decent 1GHz Apple processor (although bear in mind the latest Snapdragon smartphones have a 1GHz processor too). The impressive number, however, was 10 hours of battery life. That’s big. Though I have to wonder just how far that falls in real-world use: wifi and 3G will both be a fair drain and there’s clearly no way it plays 10 hours of video.
The “unbelievable price” seemed slightly misleading by splitting apart the cost. Hitting as low as $499 for the basic model was certainly a welcome surprise that no one expected. In practical terms the “real” version is the 3G-toting one, else it’s not actually particularly portable (not to mention the fact 3G laptops are readily available). The US deal is $15 a month for a mere 250MB, which I would exceed with email and attached/linked video alone. So it’s $30 a month for unlimited access which seems reasonable. That means the year one cost is actually $1,089 (for the middle 32GB model), then $360 for each subsequent year. It’s not outrageous but it’s not a low barrier to entry for what they are marketing as a third device.
It technically works with existing iPhone apps but I don’t think people were particularly wowed. Even when expanded the interfaces looked clunky and odd. But new apps taking advantage of its size will certainly look great. I foresee a swift divergence in the app store between the iPhone and iPad and, with the install base of the former, I can see a lot of developers overlooking the latter as not cost effective. While Jobs nodded to the Amazon Kindle, I can’t quite see the iPad succeeding as an e-book reader, since the very reason they took off is that e-ink avoids eye strain. However until colour versions emerge (likely later this year) it could be ideal for magazine-style articles and the New York Times demo with embedded video was particularly impressive (even if it was just a glorified website).
The glaring omission for me is one I had not expected to see: nearly 10 inches of screen real estate and a 1GHz processor, but no evidence of multitasking. Palm’s webOS has a perfect implementation on a significantly smaller device, so how Apple didn’t feel the need to address this is at best startling and at worst unforgivable. If they are trying to create a new product between phones and laptops, it needs at least to be able to match the functionality of top end phones. Also strangely missing are flash-support — for a device supposedly offering fully portable web browsing that’s bizarre — and a camera, which is certainly non-essential but fullscreen Skyping while wandering/sitting around with one of these would be pretty damn cool. Again, features that top-end phones already have.
They will sell, of course. That hardcore Apple fans will be picking them up in 60-90 days isn’t even a question. However this needs much broader consumer appeal to be the “magical and revolutionary device” (seriously, as an actual slogan?) Jobs suggests. I’m sure interest will be high in the short term, not least because Apple has cued mainstream journalists with appropriate adjectives, but it’s going to take some serious marketing to build up momentum. Ultimately the first iPad is an interesting concept that flounders for the same reason as the netbooks it aims to replace: it tries its hand at a lot but, in attempting to fill a gap that doesn’t yet exist, it isn’t quite sure what role it serves. The result is that, like most notebooks, it’s just okay.