Apple iPad sketches future of tablets

Is Apple’s iPad media tablet the “Magical & Revolutionary Device at an Unbelievable Price” that Steve Jobs claims it is? Or will it be an embarrassing failure like the Apple Lisa, the Newton and Pippin?

We will have to wait until the iPad goes on sale in the US towards the end of March for the definitive answer to that question. But based on the iPad’s specifications, Apple’s new baby does appear to avoid many of the pitfalls that have plagued earlier tablet and slate-style devices.

Most of these devices including those bearing the names of some of the biggest names in technology such as Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Fujitsu, have failed to make much of an impact outside industry vertical markets like healthcare.

One reason perhaps is that many of these devices were basically laptops without keyboards, while others were mobile phones with big keyboards. In both cases, they failed to identify a real market need.

But that has not stopped companies trying and some recent devices like HTC’s Windows Mobile powered Advantage, which has a 5-inch touch sensitive screen and a detachable keyboard, or the Archos 9 PCTablet with its 9-inch touch screen and Windows 7 operating system, have been well received.

Meanwhile, at least a dozen companies including HP, Dell and Lenovo were showing prototypes of touch-based tablet PCs at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. Others including Asus, Mobinnova, MSI and Quanta were showing slate-style devices built around nVidia’s Tegra 2 processor while Aluratek was showing a large touch-screen-based digital media player.

But unlike most of these would-be competitors, Apple is clearly targeting what it believes is a distinct gap in the market with the iPad which, to all intents and purposes, is a supersized iPod Touch/iPhone rather than a keyboardless-PC or a relatively ‘dumb’ e-book reader like the Kindle or Sony e-Reader.

“While laptops are focused on productivity, and mobile phones are still primarily about communication, the main focus of media tablets is entertainment,” says ABI Research senior analyst Jeff Orr.

The elegant design of the iPad, which is just 0.5 inches thick and weighs 1.5 pounds despite its stunning 9.7-inch multitouch-enabled colour screen, coupled with its pricing is clearly designed to appeal to the consumer market while minimising the risk that it will cannibalise sales of either the iPod Touch/iPhone or MacBook laptops.

The built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi and optional 3G connectivity, flash memory storage (up to 64Gb) and extended battery life (up to 10 hours) make for an appealing hardware package, though in the current configurations the iPad lacks a video-capable built-in camera which would have been nice for videoconferencing.

Because the iPad is based on the iPhone operating system, it also lacks support for Flash video and cannot handle true multitasking (running multiple applications at once). That effectively rules it out as a laptop alternative – even with an add-on keyboard – for all but the most basic tasks like email and web browsing.

But for Apple’s target market that may not matter. Apple describes the iPad as “a revolutionary device for browsing the web, reading and sending email, enjoying photos, watching videos, listening to music, playing games, reading e-books and much more.”

Most importantly perhaps, Apple has ensured that from the outset, there will be plenty of digital content available for the iPad. Both iPad models will use existing Apple services including the iTunes music and app stores. Apple is also taking direct aim at the e-book reader market with an iBooks app which provides access to the new iBookstore which will feature books from major and independent publishers.

In addition to 12 new apps designed especially for the iPad, Apple is also introducing a new multi-touch version of its iWork office productivity suite for the iPad.

Personally, I had been rather skeptical about the iPad before the launch. But, despite a few niggles, the final clincher for me was the announcement of the $500 price tag for the basic model – significantly cheaper than many had expected. I think the iPad will help define the emerging media tablet market and be a success for Apple – the only questions are how big a success, and how quickly.