Will Apple's iPad tablet prove a bitter pill?

Minority Report: The burden of hype weighs heavy on Apple's latest creation

Minority Report: The burden of hype weighs heavy on Apple's latest creation

After months of fevered speculation, Apple's tablet has finally arrived. But does the iPad live up to the hype, asks Seb Janacek.

There was always the suspicion that an anti-climax was on the cards. The hype for the next big thing from Apple had been building since the launch of the iPhone but the seeds had been sown much earlier. Now, after a million words in speculative articles, blogs and tweets, the iPad is among us.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs opened up the introduction to the iPad's launch event last night with a slide showing an etching of Moses and a quote from the Wall Street Journal: "Last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it."

Jobs jumped straight in: "Everyone uses a laptop and/or a smartphone. The question has arisen lately: is there room for a third category device in the middle?"

Apparently there is and the iPad is Apple's first attempt to fill it - you can see the device in action in our photo story here.

Apple tablet ipad

The Apple iPad in the flesh
(Photo credit: James Martin/CNET)

The first reaction to the iPad was surprise that there wasn't more to the device. I followed a number of live feeds from inside the event complex and all were expecting a big finish. But it never really arrived.

The real miracle was that Twitter managed to stay running throughout the course of the event and there too, tweets demonstrated a sense of deflation: "Is that it?", "I was expecting a lot more", "Meh". Hardly the kind of responses that send the pulse racing at the launch of the most anticipated Apple product in years.

So does this mean it's a big disappointment? Definitely not. It's simply that the level of wild expectation could never be matched by reality. The iPad is a solid new product, it's just not spectacular. Yet.

It's always worth paying attention to Jobs' opening salvos in keynotes as they set the tone for what is to follow both in the announcement and in the product roadmap. For the iPhone he spent a long time focusing on the limitations of physical keyboards on phones. For the iPad he looked at the gap in the market for a whole new type of device.

"Apple is a mobile devices company," said Jobs causing me to glance in alarm at my 24-inch iMac. He added of the iPad: "It's so much more intimate than a laptop."

This may be the key point. Tablets up until this point have been cut down versions of PCs with PC operating systems and I've never seen a good implementation. There's never really been a point to the product.

The iPad however attempts to break new ground. It shares features with a netbook and an iPhone as well as a Kindle e-reader and a handheld gaming device. In other words it's not something we can quite compute at first glance.

Unfortunately for the iPad it's also the victim of difficult second album syndrome...

...it shares many of the same user interface features with the iPhone and, given the OS is based on the same technology and runs many of the same apps, it ends up looking simply like a bigger iPhone.

However, if the iPhone was all about convergence, connectivity and user experience, then the iPad is all about content. As Jobs suggested, the iPad may well prove to be a compelling product for web browsing, watching videos, emailing and playing games, but its 'killer app' will be the content that third parties produce for it.

With the iPod and the iPhone, Apple could fall back on a huge back catalogue of music and video provided by third parties. With the iPad it has a different reliance on publishers and content providers, needing them to take a step up and realise the potential of its medium.

If the iPad is to really "establish a third category of products", it will have to count on developing these key relationships to help it take off.

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The New York Times app running on the iPad
(Photo credit: James Martin/CNET)

The iPad is going to rely on others to help forge its identity if it's not to end up a luxury web browser or fat iPod Touch. At a time when publishers are desperately looking to monetise electronic content it may prove to be a timely clarion call.

There is likely to be a lot of negative things written about the iPad in the next few weeks and the product may prove a slow burner. On face value it's not likely to blaze a trail in the way the iPhone did and it isn't the answer to a million geek prayers.

It's not the end of the world and no brave new world either. Yet.