Who Really Needs an iPad?

It has been a long time (if ever) that a new product has generated such hype prior to and such analysis after its announcement as the iPad from Apple (s aapl). You can’t escape the pundits doling out thoughts and impressions of the iPad, even on late night TV. Steve Jobs has done what he no doubt wanted to do, and created a product category that has lots of tongues wagging. But looking past all the hysteria and hype, who really needs one of these new iPads? My answer may surprise many — no one.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like the iPad. I can see one in my future, but then my hobby is buying gadgets I don’t really need. But it’s cool, and based on the wide range of mobile devices I have used over the years I can see it will be useful for my needs. But then I am not a typical user, and the fact is that the iPad doesn’t serve any single purpose that makes it a gadget that people need. Not want, but actually need.

There is already a big conversation all over the web with folks making the observation that the iPad won’t replace an existing device. It won’t knock the notebook or netbook out of the gear bag, it doesn’t offer any special function to kick the e-book reader to the curb, and it won’t replace a smartphone. These observations are spot on, the iPad doesn’t offer anything that makes it a must-have gadget, and that’s the issue that confronts Apple in driving the adoption of it for most people.

Steve Jobs positioned the iPad between a smartphone and a notebook, and that is an accurate assessment. It is not a device that will make it easy to create a lot of content of any kind, the notebook is better at that task. It does make content easier to consume than most smartphones, but that requires the user to have it with them when they need to consume said content. As many are now saying, they don’t see themselves carrying the bigger iPad with them all the time.

So if the iPad is not a gadget that people really need, who will benefit from having one? Just about everyone, if the truth be told. I base that on my own experience garnered having used many web tablets over the years. It’s not a benefit that is easily realized until you actually use one. Then the light bulb goes on.

Here’s a typical user scenario that fits the iPad perfectly: sitting in a chair at home, and you decide to check your email quickly. Where you previously would grab the smartphone on the table to do so, you now grab the iPad that is sitting there. In seconds, you’re able to process quite a bit of email, and as often happens that leads you to do other things. You click a link in an email, or you pop open the web browser to check on something that was referenced in an email. The enhanced web browsing experience, far better than on a small screen smartphone, leads to an extended session. This session can be either productive or entertaining, either way it’s an enjoyable one.

This is one of the big benefits that a good web tablet brings to the table (or hands). What I discovered is that I am able to do more — a heck of a lot more — with a tablet than with a smartphone. Sure my smartphone is still in my pocket, the web tablet doesn’t replace it. But it augments it beautifully, and this is where the iPad fits into the picture.

A lot of comparison is already happening since the announcement of the iPad. Many are comparing the iPad to other devices on a task by task basis, and the iPad won’t fare well with these. A slate without a keyboard will not do everything a notebook can do, nor as easily. The iPad will be a good e-book reader based on my own experience, but it may not be as good a reader as a dedicated device like the Kindle.

The key to realizing the benefits of a web tablet like the iPad lies in the sum of its offerings, not the individual capabilities. It won’t be as good a reader as the Kindle, but it will still be a good one for many. The lack of e-Ink technology is a deal breaker for some, but for me it’s a non-issue. The addition of a backlit screen that can be read in poor lighting conditions is actually a benefit over e-Ink-based readers for me.

I think that Apple has a big job ahead of them to convince the masses that the iPad can be a good addition to a gear collection. It’s only natural that prospective buyers do a comparison of the iPad with other devices as I’ve indicated, and that will make it a hard sell for some. But I do agree with Steve Jobs in one respect, once you experience the benefits of a web tablet like the iPad, you begin to see the value. And I firmly believe the value is great enough to convince millions of the worth of the iPad. It will just take some time.

I don’t want to give the impression that I think the iPad is without some serious faults. The lack of Flash in the browser is huge, and will be a total deal-breaker for many. A lot of the web is driven by Flash, not just embedded YouTube as we commonly think of when we ponder the lack of Flash. This alone can have a direct impact in the user experience of the iPad on the web, and the user experience is everything to a device like this. It’s easy to understand why the folks at Adobe are unhappy with Apple and its persistent refusal to play with Flash.

That leads me to the other fault I see with the iPad. Apple has been quick to point out how good the iPad is as an e-book reader, and from what I’ve seen it is solid enough. It’s also good to see that Apple has embraced the ePUB format for iPad content, as that is becoming the standard in the e-book world. The problem is with the DRM that Apple will no doubt use for e-book content sold through the iBookstore. Just because that content is in ePUB format, doesn’t mean that it can be used on other reader devices. Adobe (s adbe) is quick to point out that iPad content will not work on any other devices:

“It looks like Apple is continuing to impose restrictions on their devices that limit both content publishers and consumers. Unlike many other ebook readers using the ePub file format, consumers will not be able to access ePub content with Apple’s DRM technology on devices made by other manufacturers.”

How the lack of Flash will impact the user experience with the iPad is something that will have to be seen first-hand to fully judge. I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve had a chance to play with one myself. I do see it as a major potential stumbling block for mainstream adoption of the iPad. That’s particularly annoying as it is something Apple could easily address.