Love it or Hate it, Here Comes the iPad

Is it just an iPod on steroids or does the iPad from Apple represent the future of mobile computing? Perhaps a bit of both.

Looks like an iPod

After much anticipation Apple recently announced their latest device, the iPad.

To be fair to Apple, the bar was really pretty high in terms of both customer and market expectations. And as the bountiful commentary on the ‘net this week has demonstrated, you certainly cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Apple claims to be the largest “mobile devices” company in the world — not by units shipped, but by revenue. In this number they are including their MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops, iPods of all flavors and of course the iPhone.

It really isn’t a bad place to be, particularly considering the fact that selling gear is not Apple’s only revenue stream — they also sell software and consumer content via iTunes, the AppStore and soon, e-books. Apple may be stretching the definition of “mobile” in their accounting, but who isn’t these days?

So where does the iPad fit into this line-up of the “world’s largest mobile device company”? Steve Jobs claims the iPad fills the gap between Apple’s MacBook line and the iPhone/iPod Touch devices. Let’s take a closer look at this device.

Walks like an iPod

Apparently the saying about the “Apple not falling far from the tree” holds true in this case. The iPad looks like an iPod that reported to Spring Training all bulked-up. Hopefully Apple didn’t get caught up with the folks with BALCO or there may be congressional hearings about steroid use in their future as the iPad looks like an unnaturally large iPod.

All kidding aside, who can blame Apple for starting with a very popular design and looking to make improvements — no one can deny the market success the iPhone and iPod touch have enjoyed.

If you don’t like the iPhone or iPod touch, chances are that you won’t be too excited about this device either as it carries many of the undesirable iPhone family traits:

  • Single tasking model — all of that horsepower is still doing just one thing at a time.
  • Storage — there is no USB slot for external flash drives, nor can you store content on an SD card slot. This means that the iPad user is limited to the storage capacity decision made on the day of purchase — no upgrade option short of buying another unit. While your kid might enjoy the hand-me-down device, your wallet won’t appreciate it. The iPad is slated to be available in 16, 32, and 64GB models. Considering the nature of the content being promoted for it including music, movies and books, users may find themselves running out of space before long.
  • Synching — iPad users need a PC or Mac with iTunes in order to synch the device. Considering the relatively small storage capacity options for the iPad, iTunes is still a very important part of the iPad/iPod ecosystem.
  • No Flash Support — Apple continues to exclude Adobe Flash because they claim that virtually the only reason a Mac might crash is because of Flash. No kidding — here’s the link. Sounds like an excuse to me. During the keynote address, I did get a bit bored watching Steve Jobs browse the New York Times repeatedly. The one gem in the presentation was the page where the “Flash plugin” was not available for Mobile Safari.
  • Power — The iPad’s battery cannot be removed. While this design decision allows for a sleeker device (just .5″ in thickness), who wants the hassle of explaining to someone at the Genius Bar that your battery no longer holds a charge? Hopefully for Apple and their customers they get this formula correct as it appears as though all Apple mobile products have taken this non-field replaceable battery design approach as even the latest MacBook’s have “built-in” batteries.

If that list weren’t enough to get under your skin, you would think that a built-in camera would be a no-brainer for the iPad. One can only guess that Apple ran out of time and will add it to a subsequent release of the device?

One area where I think the iPhone has an advantage over the iPad is that if you lose your iPad you cannot “call it” to find it by the sound of your ringer. At $500 and up, you don’t want to lose your iPad in the sofa cushions or the stack of junk-mail. And don’t use it while eating corn chips unless you have some glass-cleaner handy.

So how is the iPad going to help take Apple to the next level in terms of market-share and revenue growth?

Convergence and Content

The iPad is virtually everything that the iPod is — but larger. In the world of mobile devices, size does matter.

The iPad’s display is nearly the size of a sheet of paper — that means much more real-estate is available for doing the everyday things you want to do including the staples of browsing the web, email and running applications. According to Apple, all of the native/core applications were re-written to take advantage of the iPad’s form factor. With many business apps moving to the cloud could this be the converged device we’re looking for?

The iPad will have a “keyboard dock” accessory. Imagine using your device (iPad?) on the ride to work, plugging it into the dock and then having a keyboard and mouse touch screen with say a Remote Desktop client and/or a couple of terminal windows. And an external monitor. Oh wait, that’s right, the iPad doesn’t have any video output capability. An HDMI connection would be perfect here. Hey Steve, what do you think? You might sell more of those very expensive Apple displays…

While the iPad’s large display looks to make the web-browsing experience superior to browsing the web on the iPhone it may not cut it for all-day business use. However, it does look to fair pretty well in the personal entertainment computing market.

During Apple’s introductory presentation of the iPad, software publishers gameloft and Electronic Arts, among others, shared some of the work they have been doing with an early look at the iPad SDK. The iPad’s larger screen dimensions and multi-touch display make a number of new user experience interactions possible. One example was gameloft demonstrating a sequence in one of their titles where the user “turned” the lock to a door with a three-finger gesture. Gaming with a 1.5 pound device may even prove to be good exercise, who knows.

Apple is clearly in the content business as the iPad looks to compete with the likes of Kindle and the Nook as an ebook reader. The iPad provides an “adequate” display for reading and the iBookStore app allows users to browse, sample, purchase and download books in EPUB format.

While Amazon is more diversified than Barnes and Noble, both vendors may feel some market-share squeeze when the iPad users start purchasing ebooks. It is unlikely that the iPad will be a better reader than either the Kindle or the Nook, but for those looking to purchase a single device, the iPad makes a compelling case compared to carrying a number of single-function devices.

Speaking of applications, it appears as though the iPad can run all of the iPhone applications from the AppStore from day one, allowing existing purchases to be “synched” to the device. While we can debate the merits of the iPad versus Netbooks, the availability of so much content is a strong point for Apple.

Add music and movies to e-books and applications and Apple is now securely established as a content provider, driving demand for their products while making money on each distribution of content.

Are laptops dead? No, of course not. Are Netbooks a better idea? For some, yes. But we should not be caught flat-footed as the “tablet” hits the market along with ready-made content. Don’t expect other major players like Dell, Intel (Atom Processor), Google (Android), and others to ignore this market segment. The face of mobile computing continues to change and accelerate as we find this technology creeping into more and more areas of our life.

Look for more titles in the education realm as the screen is now large enough for small-person fingers and a ten hour battery life means it could be used during the school day or for long over-the-road trips.

Who knows, maybe the President will convert a pair of them into iPrompters before 2012′s campaign season hits full steam.

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