Focus on: Apple's new iPad

The Gateway asks: what's the point

Last week, in San Francisco and with much fanfare, Apple launched their latest product, the iPad. Not since the iBook of Genesis has there been such a reaction to an Apple story. What is all the fuss about? Well, the price for one thing. It costs $499 for the basic version ($829 for the top model with 64GB and 3G). This may sound like a lot but most people were expecting it be around $1,000. What do you get for your money? Well, it's half an inch thick, weighs 1.5 lbs (680g) and has a ten inch screen. It looks like an iPhone on steroids and that's basically what it is. Technically, it's called a tablet and it's supposed to fill the gap in the market between the smart phones and the laptops. This area has proved something of a Bermuda Triangle for the computing industry. Apple has been here before. In the early nineties it launched the Newton. It was a tablet and it flopped. Microsoft also had several goes, back when Bill Gates was still in charge. Gates was convinced that tablets were the future. Sales figures suggested otherwise. Apple's chief executive, Steve Jobs, summed up the challenge "it has to be far better at some key things than either a smartphone or a laptop otherwise it has no reason for being."

So what has changed? What is the point of a phone which is too big to put in your pocket or a lap top without a keyboard? What does an iPad actually do? The answer is both "surprisingly little" and "pretty much everything". It doesn't do anything new. It lacks, what tech-geeks call, a "killer-application", meaning it can't make you a cup of tea (although how long before Apple launches iTeasmaid?) or reverse the space-time continuum (iTardis?). It does more or less the same stuff as the iPhone, only it's bigger, that's all. But in that key detail lies a host of killing applications. Size, in this instance, matters. Lots of things are better on a bigger screen. Things like reading - Apple hopes the iPad will rival Amazon's Kindle as an e-reader, helped by the new iBooks (it's like iTunes but with more semi-colons) and a partnership with the publishers Penguin and Simon & Schuster (more of the same will surely follow). Newspaper and magazine publishers are desperately hoping that the iPad will provide a way for them to make more money from online content. Users could subscribe to their favourite publications. The screen is big enough (and colourful enough) to carry decent sized advertisements. A bigger screen is also better for videos. Apple failed to agree a deal with a major studio before the launch so, for now, the iPad lacks an iMovies, but this is only a matter of time. In the meantime you could amuse yourself by playing computer games - the iPad is also a console. All the iPhone games will work on it but a bigger screen means better games will follow. Alternatively, if you're too grown-up for such things you could also use it for work - Apple have updated their iWork software applications so it will run word processors and spreadsheets although you may want to buy the plug-in keyboard.

But the iPad is far from perfect. Its many flaws have not escaped the reviewers. First, and by far the most serious, the iPad can do lots of things but it can only do them one at a time. You can't, in other words, listen to Spotify whilst browsing. Second, and most surprising, there is no camera - not on the front for iChat, nor on the back for taking pictures. These days, even things that come in cereal packets are supposed to have a camera on them. The omission almost seems like an act of self-restraint. Third, the iPad can't deal with flash content on websites. This isn't a big deal on something as small as the iPhone but it will leave big holes in the tablet's browsing experience. Then there are the smaller gripes; it can't handle widescreen or HD; it needs too many adapters; it has a silly name (faintly suggestive of feminine hygiene).

But the iPad's detractors are missing the point. It isn't a finished product; it's a new platform for program developers. Imagine what all those clever app creators could come up with for a bigger screen. One of the developers of Facebook, Joe Hewitt spelt out the implications: "If you're a developer and you're not thinking about how your app could work better on the iPad and its descendants, you deserve to get left behind." That's what's different about the iPad - it has potential. The previous generation of tablets failed because they were expensive and hard to use but the iPad is standing on the shoulders of the iPhone's OS software.

That said, the fuss over the iPad isn't really about the product itself; what it can or can't or might one day be able to do. It's about what it means for other businesses. The list of affected industries is ridiculously long. Publishers, newspapers, record companies, movie studios, television networks, program developers, computer companies, electronics goods manufacturers, mobile phone networks and advertisers are just some of the interested parties. If you're a potato farmer or a poodle breeder the iPad probably won't affect your business. Everyone else is concerned.

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