Yesterday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the iPad, a slate tablet-style computer that bridges the gap between a MacBook and an iPod touch.
After letting the announcement sink in, I believe Apple will sell millions of them before 2010 draws to a close.
I admit, I didn't want to give Apple any praise. I recognize the enthusiasm with which the press cover the company, and I didn't want to give in to the hype. For months leading up to the announcement of the device, I've been skeptical of a tablet's purpose and fit into the daily life of the average user -- whether folks need another device, whether it will be too pricey, whether they'll pay for a data plan, and so forth.
But now that the curtain has been thrown open on the device, and we know what it can and can't do, I'm confident Apple will ship millions -- for several reasons.
First -- and most important to note, in my opinion -- the iPad is not an "extra" device. In 2009, manufacturers sold 11.4 million netbooks, miniature laptops considered "extra" when they first arrived.
But netbooks filled a need for basic, inexpensive, portable computing.
The iPad is the next step in filling this need. It does away with the bulk of netbooks -- in both weight and purpose, since a shrunken laptop is hardly optimized for its role -- by offering a thin, light, keyboard-less device that provides your choice of Wi-Fi and/or 3G data.
For critics who say a virtual keyboard is no replacement for a true netbook, ask yourself just what kind of productivity you achieved on a netbook -- and whether, at the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, you really should have been using a real laptop. The netbook's consumer appeal was cheap, basic productivity, and the iPad achieves this with a mobile OS -- and without the clutter of a full-feature operating system.
Secondly, the price is right. At first glance, it's an incredible chunk of change for such a simple mobile device -- and then you realize what you paid for your netbook or your black-and-white e-book reader (yes, $500).
But the difference is that the iPad allows you to watch video (sorry, e-reader), surf the web (again, sorry e-reader), read an e-book in a comfortable way (sorry, netbook) using an optimized interface (sorry, netbook) -- in a light, thin, compact form factor (sorry, netbook).
Ask yourself: Kindle? Netbook? Or iPad?
I'm not saying that the iPad will kill off the Kindle outright. But I do believe it will relegate traditional black-and-white e-book readers to a lower-cost, single-purpose rung.
Finally, it has implications in many places we haven't yet considered. Office meeting rooms come to mind -- that means no more print outs of slideshow presentations or documents.
Train and plane commuters also come to mind. It's much more comfortable to use a 10-inch single-pane device versus a clamshell notebook in cramped quarters.
Classrooms, too. The educational applications of an intuitive touchscreen device that, to a child, is enormous, are quite tempting. (Color! Animations! Touch! Audio! A biology textbook on this thing would look brilliant.)
The iPad isn't going to replace the iPhone because a phone is an intimate device, always in your pocket, that can't really get any bigger and preserve its original purpose. (And in that way, the iPhone was far more a revolutionary invention.)
The iPad can't replace a traditional laptop because humans require a certain-size machine to comfortably work for long periods of time. (Though a virtual keyboard, that's a discussion to be had in another post.)
What the iPad can do is replace all the products that have attempted to bridge the gap between these devices thus far with a single unit built expressly for the purpose.
I'm not saying the iPad is perfect or "magical" or "extraordinary." It is not, and it has considerable drawbacks, including a lack of multitasking, Flash support, a lack of camera (a major hurdle to turn it into a wonderful VoIP videoconferencing client) and a lack of T-Mobile 3G support.
But I do believe that if Apple takes just a small slice from that broad global netbook market with a device that's actually built to address the needs of that audience -- mostly information consumption, with some information creation -- it will sell millions of iPads.