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Apple Launch their iPad, but what is it?

Image Courtesy of Apple“iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price”
Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO.

The iPad is perhaps the most anticipated product launch of the year and was launched yesterday by Apple CEO Steve Jobs with much fanfare and applause.

As usual with Apple the product looks great, but what is it, and do we really need it?

The iPad

Weighing in at 1.5 pounds (680g), or just slightly less than a bag of sugar, it isn’t light when compared to say a newspaper or paperback but then it is light enough to carry around and hold in your hands for a while, which is precisely what is it intended for.

The device allows the reading and writing of emails, browsing the web, viewing videos and photos, listening to music and even playing games, all through the touch screen whilst on the move.

The device also includes the new iBookStore (an iTunes for books) to download books as well as compatibility with almost all of the Apps in the iPhone store. The iPad will also feature iWork for iPad although confusingly it seems that the actual applications, Pages, Keynote and Numbers will be sold separately at $9.99 each (which works out at £6.20, but will most likely be £9.99).

All this browsing and typing can be done on the screen, the same as the iPhone, or the iPad Keyboard Dock that features a full size keyboard, handy for those long emails. The battery apparently means that you’ll have up to ten hours for all of your music playing, surfing, and emailing, slightly longer than most netbooks.

The iPad is due to be on sale at the end of March and will also come in two versions, a Wi-Fi only version, or a Wi-Fi and 3G version.

Do I need an iPad?

After the clapping and the cheers, the question that everyone needs to ask themselves is: What is it for?

Like the HP Slate it is aimed at the gap between smartphone users and netbook users. What gap? I hear you ask. Well, this could be the product flaw that no-one at HP, Apple and Microsoft seem to be aware of – there is no gap and even if there was, does this really fill it?

The premise appears to be that a phone is too small to successfully browse the internet, view photos and watch videos and this is certainly true, and so the iPad and Slate are meant to fulfill that need. Problem is, in the UK at least, most people aren’t too concerned.

Less than 25% of Brits surf the net on their mobile phone, and even worse, 40% of smartphone users (e.g. Blackberry and iPhone users) don’t use their device for the internet! And with most British mobile phone owners stating that they’d not be interested in getting a phone that can surf the net, you have to wonder just who the iPad/Slate is aimed at?

Will people purchase this device merely to browse the internet and view photos and videos? Presuming that it will be priced around £500, it seems unlikely, particularly as it means no YouTube or Flash video, as the iPad does not support Flash.

The 9.7 inch screen is smaller than most netbooks, which cost half the price, and the iPad/Slate suffers from a killer flaw when compared to a netbook – it does not have a keyboard.

This may not be so much of a problem when merely surfing the internet or perhaps even updating Twitter or Facebook, but what about email? If you’re thinking of writing more than a few lines, the iPad/iPhone keyboard is unlikely to cut the mustard, especially when compared to a proper keyboard like that on a netbook or laptop. Sure it comes with a keyboard dock, but surely carrying that around just in case you’re going to need to write out a long email negates the point of an iPad/Slate?

The iPad also does not support multi-tasking, in other words if you’re writing an email and need to refer to a website, spreadsheet, or word document, tough luck; better use a netbook.

Add to that the possibility of needing to word process or create a spreadsheet and the experience will quickly become annoying and long winded. Far better to wait until you get home to a proper computer to edit that word document or spreadsheet. Which also begs the question, can the iPad print? It seems highly unlikely, which means emailing it or copying it across a network to a computer that can print, far easier perhaps to just use that computer in the first place.

That really just leaves the ebook aspect of the device, but is that going to catch on?

Is the iPad an e-reader?

Image Courtesy of AppleI admit, I may be a little biased in this regard. I am a fan of e-readers, although the technology (and the price!) means that I have yet to purchase one, but the premise is one that I can associate with. An endless supply of books at your fingertips, newspapers, magazines and all on a device that can be carried around with you!

A brilliant concept, but not one that is really ready just yet, but sadly the iPad and even the Slate aren’t even up to that standard as yet. Neither use e-ink, just standard screens and having read books on laptops, PCs, netbooks and smartphones I can verify that it is not anywhere near a replacement for a book.

Add to this the fact that the iPad has a battery life of just ten hours, at best, (compared to e-readers having days) it is unlikely that after a day of browsing internet, updating Facebook and Twitter and emailing, that you’d have enough battery life for a good read before bed.

There is also the point that any decent, and in most cases free, e-book reading software can be used on a netbook, which too can be held like a book and its screen flipped, so other than looks it doesn’t really have one up on a netbook in this regard anyway.

The idea that this type of device will be carried around and used instead of a mobile phone or netbook misses another point. People carry their mobiles phones around ostensibly to make and receive telephone calls, not to check email, update twitter or facebook, surf the net, view photos or even listen to music. The iPad/Slate cannot make phone calls so those that purchase one will still need to carrying their phone with them.

That just leaves it as a netbook/laptop replacement, but who is likely to need to carry around a netbook/laptop with them all day and favour this instead?

Students? Maybe but the device isn’t cheap, and writing emails, assignments and essays isn’t going to be easy. I think that most students would go for the cheaper and more versatile netbook.

That just leaves the business men and women who need to be constantly in touch with the office, but again what does this device offer that their Blackberry or iPhone does not? They can just as easily view emails and their phone (easier with push email), and then struggle to type out a reply on their phone or wait till they get back to the office, as struggle on the iPad. After all who wants to, or can justify, spending ten minutes typing out an email that should have taken one minute?

It seems that the iPad/Slate is little more than a nice viewing screen and rather than filling a gap, actually falls between two stools.

Reincarnation

It is not the first time that we have seen these types of devices tabled as the next big thing. In 2001 they were called Tablet PCs and ran a striped down version of Windows XP, and it was Bill Gates touting them as the miracle machines. Back then touch screens were not good enough so Tablet PCs were really ‘pen enabled PCs’, at least according to Microsoft.

They never really caught on, although the industry refused to kill them off completely.

Next came Project Origami in 2006, otherwise known as the Ultra Mobile PC. The ridiculously expensive and underpowered devices oddly didn’t catch on but did demonstrate that the ‘industry’ wasn’t really sure what the consumer wanted and had misjudged badly. UMPCs are technically still going but the format is in reality, dead.

A little over a year later, it was once again demonstrated to the ‘industry’ that it was the consumer, and not they, who dictated the trends with the launch of the netbook. Netbooks became a huge and to many a surprise hit and almost single handedly kept computer sales going during the recent economic slump. Consumers couldn’t get enough of the small, low powered and cheap mini-laptops, which were almost the complete opposite of UMPCs.

The Future for the iPad

Unfortunately as history has demonstrated, there just isn’t a need for a device like this, the vast majority of users still need a keyboard most of the time. I’m sure that as usual the Apple iPad will do better than Microsoft’s/Various manufacturers Slate’s, but it still won’t do well and certainly won’t be the next big thing.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a future for these sorts of devices, just not in this form and not yet. There could be in the future a market for some kind of flexible e-ink type of wireless viewing screen that can link up to a laptop or PC so that the user can read his emails or surf the net over breakfast, dinner or in bed and still do the real work on a traditional laptop/computer. Such a device would have to be far, far cheaper however, more flexible and with a longer battery life to make it useful.

Another option could perhaps be a netbook/laptop with a detachable touch screen that can easily be slipped off for easy and comfortable viewing, and then replaced for typing. Either way, we’d still need a keyboard and far better technology than we have today.

Sadly, that means that the iPad and upcoming Slates, are nothing more than the next in a long line of dead ends and not the revolutionary devices we are led to believe.

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