The wait is finally over, and we have the details about Apple’s tablet computer, the iPad. (It’s not such a great name, but that was what people thought about the iPod, so I expect we’ll get used to it.) We put it on the cover of The Economist this week, with a cover leader, which I wrote. This post is the longer, geekier version of my analysis of the iPad. The new device is essentially a giant iPod touch with a 10-inch screen and a very fast but power-efficient chip designed by Apple. It has super-sized versions of the iPod/iPhone apps, with more elaborate pop-up menus. It runs existing iPod/iPhone apps, which can be expanded to fill the whole screen; it also runs new apps designed especially for its larger screen. There’s a Wi-Fi version and a version with both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. (In America, there’s a special deal with AT&T allowing unlimited 3G access for $30 a month.) There’s an e-reader app called iBooks, backed up by an Apple e-book store called iBookstore. There are also new, touch-driven iPad versions of the apps in Apple’s iWork productivity suite: Pages, Numbers and Keynote.
What isn’t there? There’s no camera, but that’s not really a surprise; taking pictures with a device this big would be unwieldy. Instead, there’s an optional adapter to allow photos from digital cameras to be uploaded into it. Very handy if you want to post to Facebook while on holiday. Nor is there a forward-facing camera to enable videoconferencing. There’s no phone function. But there is a built-in mic, and I expect the iPad will work with the iPhone’s headphones, which also have a mic. It would then be possible to make calls using a VoIP app over either Wi-Fi or 3G. (Apple has just said that it will approve apps that do VoIP over 3G, something it would not allow before.) The ability to run multiple apps at once, which had been expected, is also absent. I think that will be added in due course, and to the iPhone too, much as copy and paste were last year. (A four-finger swipe might allow switching between full-screen apps, for example, like on the old Mac MultiFinder.) Some people were a bit disappointed by all this, but future software updates and hardware versions may fill in many of these holes, just as 3G was added to the iPhone a year after launch. And any disappointment ought to be tempered by the iPad’s price: it starts at $499, much less than anticipated. I expected it to cost $699 when I originally wrote my leader, based on my best guesses, on Monday afternoon.
The iBooks app looks gorgeous, and it uses the open ePub format. That’s a big deal, because it means Apple is blessing that format; I think it also means that the iPad, which can run Amazon’s Kindle app, will be the only e-reader to support both Kindle and ePub formats. This may prompt Amazon to rethink its opposition to ePub. Amazon has already adjusted its royalty rates to mirror Apple’s, in anticipation of the iPad, and has opened up the Kindle to allow third parties to develop apps for it, to make it a more general purpose computer. But it has a monochrome screen that is slow to update, and very little processing power, so you won’t ever see “Grand Theft Auto” on the Kindle. I expect Amazon to launch a more powerful colour version of the Kindle, possibly with screen technology from Pixel Qi, later this year.
Anyway, back to the iPad. E-books look great on it, but Apple isn’t supporting magazines or newspapers directly. The New York Times showed a lovely app at the launch, but it’s an app. So Apple isn’t defining a new standard for periodicals — or, at least, not yet. Again, this is an obvious move for the firm in the coming months. And perhaps implementing periodicals as apps isn’t such a bad idea; it would allow lots of interactivity, if that’s what publishers (and readers) want.
Perhaps the most daring aspect of the iPad is the iWork apps. They are meant to be fully functional apps, not cut-down companion apps to run on a portable device. Apple really is positioning the iPad as a device you can do useful work on, rather than merely displaying documents or playing back various forms of media. This is daring, because previous tablets (such as Apple’s Newton, and Microsoft’s Tablet PCs) aimed at business users have failed. Tablets only took off when they became media devices aimed at consumers, like the iPod touch and competing media players, and the Kindle and its many imitators.
If people do take to the iPad as a proper computer, it may come to define a new style of computing, just as the Mac did 26 years ago. With its windows and icons, the Mac replaced the command-line style of computing with an easier-to-use alternative. But the iPhone and iPod have an even simpler and more elegant touch-based interface. There are no confusing filenames or folders, and switching between e-mail, web browsing, music and games is quick and simple. The iPad is more powerful and capable than an iPhone, but simpler than a Mac. Apple seems to be going back to the Mac’s original goal of providing an “information appliance” for everyone. Sceptics will scoff that the iPad looks like a toy, not a “real” computer, and that it can’t do everything. But that was what people said about the original Mac. The iPad could open up a big new market for simpler computers, possibly even bigger than the Mac market. If it doesn’t, though, it won’t be too embarrassing for Apple, like the Newton was, because the iPad still serves as an excellent media player, so it still has a reason to exist. My guess is that some power users will buy the iWork apps and even the optional keyboard, but most people won’t. We’ll see. (John Gruber has an excellent analogy for the iPad versus the Mac: he says it’s like automatic versus manual transmission in a car.)
So, the iPad doesn’t do everything that people hoped, but it’s an impressive device, and I expect it to sell well: perhaps 5m units in the first year. I think Apple is being quite ambitious, but not as ambitious as it could have been, in order to gauge people’s reactions before rolling out new hardware and software features. Most early buyers will be iPhone or iPod touch users, who will feel right at home, but by keeping the iPad relatively cheap and simple, Apple maximises its chances of drawing in new users, and can assess how much complexity to add later. This is equivalent to the original 128K Mac. It’s new and unlike anything else, but it’s only the start of a new product line.