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'Magical' Realism: The iPad Fantasy and Reality Check

The iPad

No "One More Thing" this year. Steve Jobs took to the stage and proceeded to rocket past months of tablet hype by finally confirming the 9.7-inch iPad. He concluded by claiming, "[The iPad is] our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price." Once revealed, Apple's entry into the tablet space seemed more like a big iPhone or iPod touch than the print-media-saving-device the hype had suggested. How's it hold up? Read on.

Available sometime in late March (or April, with 3G and Wi-Fi), the iPad will hit stores with a zippy 1GHz processor, integration with the new iBooks Store promising full color books, and the hundreds of thousands of apps already available via the App Store. Similarly, we're sure to see new apps built specifically for the iPads faster processor and larger screen on launch day.

New York Times App

We were most impressed today by the New York Times's iPad-specific mobile app, which was also unveiled during the presentation. The pages retained the look and feel of the print edition of the Times, and offered a full multimedia experience (video, photo galleries, and more). Users navigate the app via drop-down contextual menus, allowing you to move quickly between articles and sections.

iBooks Store: Should Amazon Be Scared?

The iPad was supposed to mark Apple's entry into the e-reader market and scare the bejeesus out of Amazon. The truth? The iPad doesn't really seem like a Kindle-killer. Purchases in the iBooks store seem to fall mostly in the $12.99 and $14.99 range. Kindle books are cheaper (usually $9.99), and likely to get cheaper still. Plus, Kindle books are downloadable from anywhere via the Kindle's free 3G connection, while the iPad requires a monthly data plan that starts at $14.99. Aside from all that, we're just not convinced that reading will be as comfortable on the lower-resolution color screen. Of course, the iPad does do much more than the Kindle (3-D games, for instance), so this is like comparing Apples to toaster ovens.

iWork: The Touch Version

Apple's Phil Schiller hit the stage to show off the iWork productivity and office suite. Yes, Apple is attempting to make spreadsheets, slideshows, and work, in general, fun (and mobile) by taking Renaissance and Chalkboard themes and adapting them to a touch device. (Indeed, you can still use Comic Sans.) There's nothing mind-boggling here, just the touch version of these apps, priced $9.99 each.


Oddly missing from today's announcements was an iPad-optimized version of iLife. Sure, iPhoto lives on in a crippled form as a mobile app, but it's not as powerful as its desktop-based sister. Similarly, an iPad GarageBand would've been a fascinating addition to the bedroom recording studio, especially with the huge number of music creation apps already available from Apple's store.

Who Is It For?

To be honest, we're not quite sure. Jobs talked of an unoccupied space between smartphones and more powerful (and clunky) laptops, but Apple's answer doesn't initially seem to fill that niche. Looking at what the device is missing, though, reveals some interesting use cases.

Without a camera, the iPad won't attract users who are interested in video-chatting, whether via Skype or an iChat video app. Had it been equipped with an SD card reader, the iPad could've been a huge aid for photographers who don't want to lug around a laptop in the field. Similarly, the addition of a stylus could've made it a great tool for artists and designers who want to use the device as a tablet. Jobs mentioned using the device in the kitchen to order tickets via Fandango, for instance, but that's something the iPhone and iPod touch already do perfectly well.

What's It All Mean?

The iPad's lack of multitasking capability is a huge disappointment. While bearable in a small mobile device like the iPhone, it does not jibe very well with Apple's promotion of the iPad as a netbook-killing device. Netbooks may be slow, but at least you can stream music while typing a text document, something that appears to be impossible on the iPad. Aside from all that, the absence of Flash leaves a huge portion of the Internet, including gaming, inaccessible to iPad users. From video and hands on we've seen, the device shows little hesitation moving between photo galleries, browsing the Web, playing games or watching video. Even so, why build a larger and more powerful device if it can't do anything more than a glorified iPod touch?

If nothing else, Apple's willingness to gamble on the tablet form factor tells us it's here to stay. And judging from the crowd's reaction when Jobs ridiculed netbooks, the tiny laptops might have just met their evolutionary replacement. A more subtle detail buried in all this is that the iPad is running a custom built Apple processor, making one less part it'll have to buy elsewhere when it comes time to assemble the next version of the iPhone.


First impressions from the Switched team (we'll be back soon with more thoughts after getting some hands on with the device):

Three years after Jobs unveiled the original iPhone, Apple kicks off 2010 with an entry-level tablet at the exact same price: $499. Appearing like a glimpse into the future upon its release, the iPhone redefined how a smartphone could look, feel, and function. The iPad, on first look, doesn't really excel at anything. Sure, heavy software upgrades could make the iPad more enticing, but I'm still left wondering where the camera is; Apple's other "mobile devices," the iPhone and laptop lines both come equipped. Jobs set up the iPad as a superior product to the entire genre of netbooks ("magical," even), but the iPad can't multitask, can't stream from Hulu or Netflix, and, even without 3G connectivity, is still the price of two iPod touches.

Admittedly, I am an Apple fangirl in the full. But it really seems that Jobs and Co. have been chasing their own tail since the mega-successful iPhone, continually trying to make things more 'iPhone'-like. Without a camera, the iPad can't serve as a substitute (or even a secondary device) for the all-in-one experience of the iPhone. That being said, Apple is notorious for getting out good ideas the first time around, and nailing it on the second try. The second-gen iPod was better than the first, and the 3GS was better than earlier iPhones, so I'm holding out to see if Apple will make some minor tweaks in its next incarnation. That's really all it needs to be a super-tablet-turned-reader.

It's a mobile Web device that doesn't come standard with 3G. It's an (overgrown) iPhone that doesn't place phone calls. It's an e-book reader that can't last a full day on a single charge. It's a computer that can't multitask. It's a media player you can't put in your pocket. It's a mapping and local search tool without GPS. It's the "best way to experience the Web" without Flash. (OK, maybe they have a point on that one.) The iPad is a lot of things. Sadly, a well-thought-out device does not appear to be one of them.

Apple positioned and priced the iPad well as a media player/reader, deftly avoiding the taint of the Tablet PC label. The Kindle was Amazon's number one seller during the holidays, and the Nook and Sony's readers were also hot, so we already know that at least a few million people are into the idea, and it's still early days yet. The iPad's slick design and pretty robust specs coupled with the whole iTunes/iApp ecosystem make it a no-brainer compared to the competition -- it's a few bucks more than the Kindle DX, yet offers so much more. The big disappointment for me though is the 3G pricing scheme. Adding $130 to the cost, plus a monthly fee and the fact that it's with AT&T... what a god-awful proposition. But overall I predict it'll sell like iHotcakes.


Some of us were hoping for a better name (iSlate, Slice) but let's not get hung up on the fact that "iPad" kind of sounds like "iPod" spoken by a Midwesterner. The connectivity on this device is so limited, I can't imagine what use I would ever have for it. The iPad seems to be more lacking than it is packing. There's no flash, no camera, no phone connection, and no standard USB ports. What I do like: the New York Times app and... I can't think of anything else. The display is pretty, but the bezel is gigantic. I'd like to see the iPad a year from now, after all the consumers who are willing to buy it complain to Apple about its lack of features.

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