Apple's iPad: What's it really for?

If there's one thing Apple is good at, it's keeping the rest of world guessing about new products.

If there's one thing Apple is good at, it's keeping the rest of world guessing about new products while generating more buzz than the New Orleans Saints making it to the Super Bowl for the first time. Even though the world knew Apple CEO Steve Jobs would unveil a tablet on Wednesday, the announcement created enough of a stir to take down Twitter briefly and slow Web traffic on a lot of sites.

Post-buzz, reaction to the iPad seems to be mixed. I don't think you can really dispute the cool factor. After seeing even a handful of videos or screenshots showing the new device, most anyone would recognize that Apple is once again reframing how we handle all the data and media that now make up our digital lives.

Post-hype letdown?

But after my "I can't wait to play with this" moment, a slight sense of disappointment and confusion set in. Some of it was inevitable after all the hype and rumors of the past several weeks. When many of the dreamed-of features (multitasking, still or video cameras, the possibility of wireless carriers other than AT&T) turned out to be just that -- dreams -- and there was no preview of iPhone OS 4.0 as many expected, some people were bound to feel like a kid who gets sweaters at Christmas instead of a Wii.

Beyond that, though, the target market for the iPad isn't as clearly defined as it is for most Apple products. Is it appropriate for business use? Is it a media player or e-reader? How would it be used in educational environments? Is it just an oversized iPod Touch? Exactly what needs does it meet that a smartphone or notebook can't fulfill?

We won't fully know the answer to those questions until the iPad hits the market in March or April or for a little while after it's released. But maybe the point isn't what the iPad is, but what it represents.

Whatever the intended market (I'll speculate a little more on that in a minute), the iPad represents a lot of important things for Apple. It shows that Apple is still looking to lead and innovate in a wide array of areas, both technically and in terms of how people use technology.

The iPad is the latest and most striking example of Apple's use of multi-touch technology. True multi-touch capability was more concept than reality before the iPhone's debut in 2007. In less than three years, Apple has taken that technology and baked it into every one of its product lines. After the iPhone came multi-touch trackpads on Apple's laptops. Then, last fall, came the new magic mouse. And now it's being used in a full tablet. With each advance, Apple rolls out new ways to interact with devices.

I don't know if Apple will eventually build a true touch-screen Mac, but the iPad certainly shows that it could and that it would be more than just another touch-screen computer. And along the way, Apple is leading the mobile device and computing market down a multi-touch path.

The iPad's arrival also demonstrates Apple's continued ability to push the envelope in other technologies, including battery life. Over the past year or so, Apple has pioneered the concept that innovative battery design can lead to better battery life and better design. Not everyone is happy about the trend toward built-in, nonreplaceable batteries, but Apple at least makes the concept seem feasible, and even desirable.

Finally, the iPad is proof positive that Apple has the financial resources to develop completely new products from the ground up. The fact that Apple designed and manufactured its own processor specifically for the iPad speaks volumes about the company's vitality, even in an uncertain economy. And it bodes well for Apple's ability to innovate in the years ahead.

Beyond just a symbol of things to come

All that said, I have no doubt that even if the immediate market for the iPad isn't obvious, Apple wouldn't have developed the device without believing it could be a vital product. (There was no talk of the iPad as a "hobby," as there is around the Apple TV.) So, what sweet spot is Apple aiming for?

My first thought is that Apple is gunning for entertainment convergence, the ability to couch-surf, play games and do basic Internet tasks almost anywhere and in the coolest way possible. Yes, you can do these already with a notebook or a netbook, but if you want to be able to do them in the coolest way possible, the iPad will have obvious appeal. (Never underestimate the power of cool when it comes to bringing technology to the public.) There's the lure of e-books and the potential to use the iPad as an e-reader. And, perhaps most important, there's the price.

If you have a limited budget, the iPad is going to appeal to you. With a starting price of $499, Apple is under the magic $500 mark that analysts have long touted as an important psychological barrier for tech consumers. It doesn't matter that you aren't buying a full-fledged computer; chances are, you already have a another computer to sync it with that can do all the real computing tasks the iPad can't handle. And at that price, what better way to get Apple's OS (whether iPhone-derived or Mac OS X) in front of more people than with the iPad?

What about business...

Now, when it comes to business or education, Apple (or a third party) needs to fill some gaps before the iPad is likely to see wide deployments in the enterprise or in large-scale classroom settings.

The big challenges in either of these types of environments is the need to do mass deployments, enforce security policies, integrate with existing systems and offer options for wide-scale device management as well as for handling security breaches if a device is lost or stolen. In other words, the things that have kept sysadmins from fully embracing the iPhone will also hold true for the iPad.

That's the one thing that's been most confusing about the initial burst of information about the iPad. Apple has been steadily building many of those enterprise-grade deployment, management and security features into the iPhone and iPod Touch for the past couple of years. So, the assumption that it can't or won't do so with the iPad seems strange.

And that makes me wonder: Is this potential enterprise-worthy goodness simply not vetted broadly enough yet to announce? If that's the case, it might make it into a shipping product at launch or via a later update (as happened with the last two iPhone OS releases). Or it could mean that Apple has an iPad Pro up its sleeve for later introduction, perhaps with additional business features as well as more enterprise-level security and management tools.

One thing's for sure: If the iPhone's growing popularity in the workplace -- whether it's officially supported or not -- is any indication, you'll be seeing iPads in a cubicle near you soon enough.

...And education?

Even if Apple isn't looking to make the iPad a business-oriented device, it's hard to think that Jobs and company haven't thought about it for education, where it would shine as both an Internet/basic computing device and electronic textbook reader. Given Apple's strong position in many education markets, I can't imagine that there hasn't been a discussion of the laptop carts that Apple sells to K-12 schools being replaced by or augmented with iPads. For many schools, even providing an iPad to every student would be more economical than providing them with individual laptops (something now increasingly common). But, just like businesses, schools need to be able to secure and manage their devices.

An even more intriguing thought is that Apple may have some new security tools for working with the iPad. One point I've seen made a lot this past week concerns the iPad's apparent lack of VPN support. What's interesting to me about that is that with the current release of Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server, the company introduced a feature called Mobile Access Server that uses TLS (transport-level security) to allow secure access to all of the built-in collaborative services without using a VPN. Mobile Access Server is already supported on the iPhone, iPod Touch and Snow Leopard Macs.

All in all, the reaction to the iPad unveiling after all this waiting and speculation may not have elicited the gasps of joy you might have expected, given the hype. But, just because we've seen video of the product (and some of us have been lucky enough to see one in person), I'm willing to bet that there's a lot more that we're going to find out over the next few months as the iPad matures and an iPad-specific developer community evolves.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. His most recent book is The iPhone for Work, published by Apress. You can find more information at www.ryanfaas.com and can e-mail Ryan at ryan@ryanfaas.com.

Tags Applesteve jobsapple ipadiPad

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Ryan Faas

Computerworld (US)

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