The iPad May Change Computing, Just Not Your Life

The first time you walk into an Apple Store and pick up an iPad, you’ll understand the hype: Apple has managed to create a beautiful, thoughtfully designed, compelling product in a space where mediocrity was, until now, status quo. But odds are you probably won’t buy one — at least not yet. And that’s OK.

For despite the high level of anticipation for and proclamations associated with the launch of the Apple device, the fact remains that outside of a few select vertical uses (like medicine), tablets are constrained by their own form factor, stuck in the nether realm between productivity and portability. Standing onstage during the device’s unveiling, Steve Jobs himself posed a question that acutely underscores the tablet dilemma: Is there room for a third category of product that sits between your two most essential devices, the laptop and phone? As much as I’m looking forward to the iPad, I’m still not sure there is.

To date, no one’s been able to scale tablets as a core personal computing product, though it’s certainly not for lack of effort. Just about every player in the electronics world has given tablets a go, from Nokia with its Maemo-based N-series Internet communicators to Dell with its Android-based mini-slates to all manner of Windows-based convertible and slate tablet PCs. But the problem with all of them — and the iPad may also be included — isn’t that they’ve been unable to offer fundamentally differentiated experiences from the devices we already own and carry.

Think back to the iPod — before it existed, there wasn’t such a thing as taking your entire music (and eventually, video) library with you wherever you went. But the concept proved to be so elemental that it transcended the iPod as a device, and became a staple in nearly every product Apple makes, from iTunes on the Mac to the iPhone. In his iPad launch presentation, Jobs seemed pretty clear about the fact that the iPad won’t replace your phone or laptop (at least not any time soon), and yet Apple has still been deficient in demonstrating more than scaled-up iPhone experiences (like browsing, light email, and gaming) or scaled-down desktop experiences (like iWork).

Of course, it would be a failure of imagination to assume there won’t eventually be something built on the iPad platform that simply couldn’t be hosted on a phone or laptop. But so far Apple hasn’t shown it to us, which may be why so many are still lukewarm on the device’s prospects. This also might be why iBooks was January’s dark horse announcement — it was the only app Apple showed off that seems to call out for the iPad by name. But long-form reading is still arguably better suited to devices like the Kindle and Nook, which benefit from E Ink displays, while shorter-form media (namely periodicals) went all but ignored by Apple, which punted to publication-specific apps like the New York Times reader. Had Apple attempted to create a new, ubiquitous, standard format for magazines and newspapers, and leveraged its sales infrastructure for subscription content, the iPad might have been hailed as the iPod of publishing.

There’s no question Apple has (re)defined the tablet dialog and raised the bar for the space moving forward. For browsing the web, the iPad experience is second to none; the product itself almost seems to melt away, leaving the user to feel as though they’re literally reaching in and touching the content. And by the time the iPad’s price drops in a year or two, Apple may be able to parlay a groundbreaking product into a market leadership position. But in the mean time, the countdown to launch has begun and Cupertino’s set its sights on building yet another market, we’ll have to see just how many people are ready to put their money where Apple’s tablet is.

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Ryan Block is the co-founder of gdgt and the former editor in chief of Engadget. Disclosure: gdgt is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.