Tomorrow the iPad goes on sale in the States. Announced in January, the iPad sits squarely between a laptop and an iPod Touch. Large lines are expected to form in front of Apple Stores across America; ants scurrying to grab their crumbs.
What is uncertain is whether this release is going to be much ado about nothing or more an event that will revolutionize the computer market.
Among the iPad shortcomings are the following:
A somewhat embarrassing name;
Lack of Flash support;
Inability to multitask (exception made for some Apple built-in apps);
Software restrictions due to DRM;
Lack of webcam;
Lack of USB ports;
Not as portable as an iPod, iPhone or a tablets a la Nokia N900;
Not ideal for long typing sessions, due to a virtual keyboard (even though an external keyboard can be purchased as an optional accessory).
Your first impression might be that we are dealing with a flop like the Apple TV or similar niche products that are popular with Apple fans, but lack the transformational power and impact on society that have been shown by the iPod or the iPhone.
Much of the iPad’s criticism comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the target use of this product. Those who consider the iPad a replacement for their laptop will no doubt be disappointed by the performance and restrictions of this device.
One also needs to take into consideration the iPad’s target audience. Many assumed that the target audience was primarily composed of geeky early adopters, programmers, and more in general, people with a technical mindset.
Far from telling my readers that they shouldn’t indulge in the prohibited pleasure of possessing an iPad, it seems clear to me that the Gaussian function has its maximum elsewhere, amongst students, casual users, and the general public, who want a device from which to check their email, surf, and play from their couch, kitchen or local coffee shop. A computing device that is small enough to carry in a purse, but large enough (with its 9.7" diagonal) to easily display websites and applications, without causing one to squint their eyes.
Seen in this light, the iPad has a solid reason for being, despite all of its limitations. Imagine a computer that is accessible and easy to use, and doesn’t require IT support from your nephew to fix (or remove a virus). In other words, a portable device that simply works. It only does a few things, but it does them in a manner that provides a pleasant experience to the average user.
The iPad’s field of application isn’t very restricted either. It can be seen as a portable console for casual gaming, a digital frame to show photos set to a soundtrack, or a quick presentation tool at a small business meeting. It’s a multimedia tool for listening to music and watching videos and lectures. Finally, the iPad is also a magazine and ebook reader. Some may rightfully argue that the e-ink technology is easier on the eyes for extensive reading, but the iPad has a vibrant color screen, and is able to display complex PDFs as well as ePub books sold directly from the brand new iBookstore.
The design, as is customary for products designed by Jonatahn Ive, is minimalistic, sleek and easy on the eyes. Starting at $499 (as shown in the figure below), the price point is rather competitive, so as to be able to reach a wide, international audience.
All things considered, it’s easy to imagine that the iPad will be a commercial success with the potential to transform how millions of consumers approach the Internet, gaming and book reading. This is far from certain, but I suspect that the iPad will be the iPod of the laptop world.
My suspicion is further supported by the ecosystem that surrounds this form of lightweight computing. Teachers will love the possibilities that such a device opens up, where students can now have a more interactive and multimedia-driven experience (particularly if ad hoc applications are created for this).
Book and magazine publishers already love the idea of selling books through the iBookstore, a refuge from the totalitarian price policies imposed by Amazon. This could in turn, really increase publishers’ investment in the digital world.
Programmers will be able to explore new ideas and create applications that are specifically tailored to the iPad user interface and user experience. The many advantages, and few disadvantages, of this approach are well known thanks to the iPod Touch and iPhone experience.
While restrictions are obviously limiting, they can also foster creativity. Among a sea of silly gag applications, there were also truly innovative apps designed for the iPhone. I would expect nothing less from applications developed using the same tools and distributed through the same channels, but targeted to a device that has much larger screen and processing capabilities.
Personally, I don’t know if I will purchase an iPad or not, after all I spend far too many hours in front of a traditional laptop already. But I clearly see a brilliant future for this new Apple product, despite its limitations and the closed approach to hardware and software that has become typical of Cupertino’s company.
What about you, are you headed to the Apple Store?
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and Technical Evangelist at IBM. He authored 'Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers' by Wrox (2009) and 'Technical Blogging' by The Pragmatic Bookshelf (2012). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an IBM educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.