As expected, Apple on Wednesday announced its tablet device, the iPad, which resembles an oversized iPod touch. In fact, that the iPad is pretty much exactly as expected is the problem. Instead of unleashing a wild, innovative device, Apple has instead announced a me-too product that bridges the gap between smartphones and notebook computers. The question, of course, is whether anyone needs or wants such a thing.
"iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs. "iPad creates and defines an entirely new category of devices that will connect users with their apps and content in a much more intimate, intuitive and fun way than ever before."
That last line requires you to pretend that a decade of tablet PC computing has never occurred, and that Apple's competitors do not exist. In fact, buying into the iPad vision will require a pretty hefty dose of Steve Jobs' reality distortion field. So put your blinders on. We're going in.
Physically, the iPad resembles a large iPod touch, with a 9.7-inch multi-touch screen that, curiously, offers a 4:3 standard aspect ratio rather than the expected widescreen display. (It runs at 1024 x 768 resolution.) The device is also oddly ugly, for an Apple product, with a very wide bezel around all four sides of the display.
Apple is offering a whopping six different versions of the device, at prices that range from $499 for a stripped-down model with a lowly 16 GB of storage and no 3G wireless connection (all iPads do offer 802.11n connectivity, however) to a more Apple-esque $829 model with 64 GB of storage and 3G. Of course, 3G connectivity is not included in the price (as is the case with Amazon's Kindle eBook reader), though Apple is offering some affordable pay-as-you-go plans, including 250 MB of data for $15 per month and unlimited data for $30 per month. These plans can be started and stopped at any time, and do not require a contract. Sadly, they are available through AT&T only.
For a multimedia device, the iPad is missing a surprising range of features. There's no camera at all, so still pictures or video are out of the question. (As is Skype-type phone calling.) There's no multitasking capability, so you can run only one app at a time, as with the iPhone. It doesn't support Flash, limiting access to some popular websites.
What Apple does supply with the iPad, however, is a larger-screen version of the iPod touch. Most iPhone/iPod touch games and applications will run just fine on the device and a new generation of iPad-specific apps are on the way. Apple is also touting the device's eBook capabilities, called iBooks, though a backlit display like the one on the iPad isn't ideal for reading. From a functional standpoint, the iPad is almost half way between an iPod touch and a Macbook laptop, and it does offer some PC-like applications—like Apple's woeful iWork apps—in addition to the iPod stuff. In short, it very much resembles several Google Android-based devices.
The problem here, in case it isn't obvious, is that the iPad doesn't live up to the hype. Arguably, no product could: Apple's tablet entry has been the subject of intensive scrutiny and speculation for months. But the design, functionality, and price of the iPad are all simply in line with expectations, and unlike with previous high-profile launches, like that of the iPhone, Apple didn't really push the innovation needle forward in any appreciable way.
In fact, what's pretty obvious is that the iPad is simply a bald-faced way for Apple to further milk its iTunes content delivery system. The company acknowledged yet again this week that it barely breaks even on the iTunes Store, but where Apple does make money—lots of money—is on the devices that use the store. And the iPad is just that: Yet another physical front-end to that content that Apple sells (but does not make). If the iPad is a platform, it's an e-commerce platform, a way to syphon money out of its customers' pockets. Nothing more, nothing less.
While not unprecedented, Apple's inability to generate any meaningful excitement at Wednesday's event speaks to the dark side of the company's secretive ways. If the company had simply come clean on its plans earlier, it could have avoided the letdown that has naturally occurred after months of silence. But then, we're not used to Apple letting us down this hard. The iPad is decent enough, sure, but then no one actually needs this device, whereas many people need phones and computers. So it's not Apple's next big business. It's not even close.
The iPad begins shipping in non-3G form in late March. Apple says that 3G-based iPads will ship a month later, in April