Now that we've seen Apple's new product, we no longer have to call it the Rumored Apple Tablet--it's the iPad. And the arguments about it are already flying.
Some of this is predictable. There are Apple fanboys, and Apple haters, and people who don't really care what kind of computer they use, and everything in between. As for me, I'm an Apple enthusiast. I genuinely like the way Apple designs their products, I appreciate the synergy between hardware and OS that is generally achievable only when one company controls both, and when I look at the alternatives I frankly can't imagine that my next computer will be anything but an Apple product. I object to being called a fanboy, though, because I don't think that I am. I use a lot of open-source software on my Macs, and am a huge fan of many Google products in preference to the equivalent offerings from Apple. But in general, my first choice will usually be a Mac.
So, as a Mac enthusiast, what is my take on the newly introduced iPad?
Before starting, it needs to be said that I'm basically going to be talking out of my butt here. I haven't seen one in the flesh or handled one, so I have no real-world experience to base my comments on. This, however, makes me no different than 99% of the bloggers and journalists out there, and it isn't stopping _them_, so I see no reason for it to stop me either. :-) Also, writing this post is a way for me to clarify my own thinking, so this is going to be long. You have been warned.
Who's it for?
It seems to me that Apple is targeting a very specific audience--the casual user who mainly uses a computer to surf the web, look at photos and videos, check e-mail, play games, listen to music, and maybe read an e-book. This is not a business machine. If you do video editing, run Photoshop, or need to use specific professional software applications, this probably isn't for you. If you just don't like Apple products, this isn't for you. If you object to closed systems, this isn't for you. As Merlin Mann said on today's TWiT video stream, "If you’re Stallman, and you want to own the BIOS, this isn’t for you." Fair enough.
Fortunately for Apple, I suspect that the audience they've targeted is a pretty substantial one. I'd count myself as one of them; when I think about what I do with technology, it mostly involves going online, writing blog posts, checking email, reading RSS feeds, occasionally downloading music or e-books, and posting to Twitter.
Here's where it gets interesting. The pricing as announced for the iPad starts as low as $499, and tops out at $829 for the model with all the bells and whistles.
Compare this with the arsenal of technology that I use currently. It includes a MacBook Pro (bought refurbished, $1349), a previous-generation iMac (bought new, custom build, $1776), an iPod Mini (bought refurbished, $199), and a first-generation Kindle (bought new, $349). Not counting my mobile phone, that's four items that cost a total of $3673\. Not all of these things are ideal for the way I use them. I love my MacBook Pro, but after a while its aluminum body _does_ get a tad warm (CPU is currently at 66 degrees Celsius right now, according to iStat Menus). Most of the time, I'm sitting on my sofa, and as the laptop heats up I'm forced to perch it on an armrest or something similar. It's also a waste of a fine machine, to be honest; you don't need all that horsepower to go online and surf the web. I love the Kindle, but it's a single-purpose machine, and as a first-generation model it suffers from all the design missteps that Amazon let slip through. And it's damnably expensive for a single-purpose machine.
Worst-case (i.e., most expensive) scenario, that's $829 vs. $3673\. Even $499 model would handle the overwhelming majority of my computing needs just fine, thank you. Hmmm…
Pros & Cons
This is not to say that it would replace them _perfectly._ The iPad has a more attractive design and user interface than my Kindle, yes--but it's also significantly larger. One of the things I love about the Kindle is its size and portability--not much larger than a trade paperback. I'm not sure I'd want to schlep the iPad everywhere I take my Kindle. Another thing I love about the Kindle is its built-in, always free wireless connectivity. The AT&T plans are good, but not _that_ good. I'm also curious as to whether the iBooks store will allow you to download the first chapter of a book as a preview, the way the Kindle store does. This is one of the great things about the Kindle, and Apple really needs to step up to the plate here and do something similar. There's also the question of how many titles are available for the iPad, although the support for ePub means that the number is likely to be large. In fact, ePub support is something that just might convince me to break with the Kindle. An open format means I don't have to worry about my e-books becoming unreadable a few years down the road. Of course, Apple may well add some sort of DRM to its ePub files. This isn't clear yet.
In terms of typing, I'm not sure I'd want to pound out a lengthy blog post like this one on the iPad's virtual keyboard, even if it has predictive text. I'd want the optional docking keyboard, which adds to the price.
However, for those times that I didn't need the keyboard, I wouldn't have to take it. In fact, I would argue that the docking keyboard is a huge selling point: there when you need it, not when you don't. And the notion of replacing my laptop with a portable device that comes with 3G wireless connectivity out of the box is hugely seductive.
That seductiveness comes with a price. It's another $129 on top of the price for the Wi-Fi version. The $29.99 unlimited data plan from AT&T is a great deal, but it's one more thing to pay. I already have DSL at home and Verizon Wireless giving me EVDO on my phone; I don't need another thirty bucks a month going out, particularly when Verizon's going to hit me up for another thirty for a data plan when my phone becomes eligible for replacement later this year and I replace it with a Droid or Nexus One. There's a point at which there's such a thing as enough connectivity, you know?
The iPad is also missing a few things that one expects to find in a computer, such as an optical drive and USB ports. Is this really a problem? I don't think so. It will dock with a Mac or PC, like an iPod or iPhone, so you can charge it and transfer files that way. Storage is becoming less and less of an issue, at least for me, since I store most everything in the cloud anyway. As long as I have access to Google Docs, it's all good. The missing keyboard is available as an add-on.
Finally, this is an Apple product. A closed, Jobsian system. You'll do things the way Uncle Steve thinks they should be done, or you won't do them at all. Got that?
Well, OK. The thing of it is, Uncle Steve knows what he's doing most of the time, and Steve's Way produces beautiful and functional products. But if that drives you nuts, you don't want one. Move along now, there's nothing to see here…
Frankly, there is no competition for this thing right now. Nobody else has anything remotely close to it. Conventional laptops don't handle the multimedia experience nearly as well, based on what I've read from people whose opinion I trust, and the Kindle is a one-trick pony. The Kindle DX, priced the same as the iPad, is now probably DOA. Amazon needs to figure out quickly what it hopes to achieve with e-books, because if battery life and readability are decent on the iPad, Apple is going to eat their lunch.
Here's the deal: being first in the market is no guarantee of being the ultimate victor. Microsoft has been trying with "Tablet PCs" for years now. Remember the Eiger Labs MPMan, the Diamond Rio, or the Creative Nomad Jukebox? Neither does anybody else. Apple introduced the iPod, and the world of digital music changed forever. As much as I have loved my Kindle, if the iPad is as good as it looks on video, I can foresee a time when all that is left of the Amazon Kindle is the software you can run on the iPad.
Would Larry buy one?
Thinking hard about it, the answer is…a qualified yes. Qualified in the sense that I want to see one in real life before committing myself, but yes. Not to replace a phone; it's clearly not an iPhone or Droid. Not to replace my desktop computer; ideally, it's an adjunct to a full-featured computer, not a replacement for one. But I can definitely see replacing my laptop with an iPad. It simply does what I need it to do, and it does it less expensively--and, in some ways, better--than even the lowest-priced MacBook. I could also see replacing the desktop with a laptop, and the iPad taking the place formerly occupied by my MacBook Pro. Just want something to read a book on while going to Starbucks or while eating lunch at Carl's Jr.? Take the iPad. Feel like writing a blog post? Dock it with the keyboard. And as something to take along on vacation, I would definitely choose the iPad. What about living with it as my only computer? Harder to say. It wouldn't be my first choice, but if I had to, then yes, I probably could.
But which iPad to choose? The 3G-enabled versions are tempting. But there's that additional data plan to pay for, and as an AT&T DSL customer, I already have free access to their wi-fi hotspots. As long as I can find a McDonald's or a Starbucks, I'm good to go, and if I wanted to get a Verizon Mi-Fi card, it would work with that as well. And, of course, I have wi-fi at home already. In terms of storage, 16 GB should be plenty. I just don't need a lot of onboard storage. So for me, the $499 version would do just fine.
Look, if you hate Apple, hate Steve Jobs, or just don't like the hype, nothing is going to convince you of the merits of the iPad. But it looks to me like this is the start of something big. People keep saying there's no proven demand for a tablet, but when Apple introduced the Macintosh, nobody was asking for a GUI either. When the iPod came out, nobody was screaming for an MP3 player. But Apple came out with one, and it took over the market. I think there is at least a possibility that something similar is happening here. It can't be proven either way, but with Steve Jobs' track record of four game-changing products (Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iPhone), my money's on Apple.
Either way, the picture will start to become clearer in 60 days. Your move, Mr. Jobs…