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Apple iPad Impressions: The Skeptic’s Take

Apple iPad

“Great – it’s an oversized iPod Touch that also displays eBooks and runs more robust productivity applications.”

Apple iPad DisplayStop us if you think these impressions are off. Because despite its welcome array of enhancements – a user-intuitive, iTunes-like online bookstore and reading app known as iBooks; greater screen real estate thanks to a 9.7-inch high-def display; beefier graphics and processing power courtesy of the 1GHz A4 chip; and a pending suite of enhanced apps including games, social networking clients, and business packages – Apple’s iPad tablet computer just didn’t wow like we’d hoped.

On a positive note, starting at an unexpectedly low $499, the device ships within 60 days courtesy of 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models in multiple configurations designed to suit an array of shoppers including 802.11n WiFi base models and units with optional 3G wireless connections. (The latter of which are powered by AT&T, offer free access to the wireless carrier’s national network hotspots and are due to launch a month later). But much as the iPad certainly impresses with its range of online connectivity options; eBook reading features; slick user interface; elegant array of multimedia storefronts; gesture-based control method; and overall strategy for cutting eReaders off at the knees, let’s be frank. Despite clever demonstrations of how the gizmo can be used to browse digital documents and spreadsheets, create compelling slideshow presentations and screen 3D video games and high-definition online video, really. In our opinion, we’ve yet to see the killer app here that would make everyday shoppers want to rush out and upgrade.

Apple iPad AppsOn the bright side, all existing 140,000+ iPhone apps are supported out of the box, with today’s launch of an iPad development software development kit (SDK) bound to soon result in the debut of more compelling, tablet-specific programs that offer marked upgrades over iPhone counterparts. However, what we’re not seeing here is the inclusion of vast quantities of portable, on-demand film/TV content; videoconferencing capability; and novel control and interaction methods (hint: an optional keyboard dock doesn’t count) as hoped. Or, for that matter, the rumored reinvention of iTunes into a cloud computing service capable of letting users access their music, album artwork and other digital data anytime, anywhere. Granted, you do get the ability to browse the Web, access email and parse multimedia in an elegant, user-friendly manner, as well as a device whose dimensions (.05 inches thin and 1.5lbs in weight) wow with sheer portability. Still, there’s no sign of that single, must-have feature that would prompt shoppers to make the upgrade en masse, unless you’re sold on the idea of digital publishing and see no reason to pay half as much (or roughly the same) for a standalone eReader unit that serves fewer functions.

With limited support for digital communications, Flash-based media and a lack of must-see content that would cause entire families or classrooms to congregate around the gadget as hoped, bear in mind as well. Audiences may also be slow to jump on board and purchase the iPad given the device’s dearth of major hardware innovations and a not inconsiderable price tag that – especially with a keyboard and case tacked on – puts the tablet in direct competition with traditional laptops. (Keep in mind that if you want full online connectivity, there’s also a $14.99 250MB/month or $29.99 unlimited/month data download plan attached.) So despite Apple’s claims that the iPad will be another “gold rush” for developers, consider. Not only will it take 12-18 months most likely for software makers to truly come to grips with what new technological possibilities the iPad presents through which to wow and amaze the general public. With the gadget being less of an impulse buy than the iPhone, there also may be less of a fan base that flocks to it, meaning fewer potential sales and hence more sluggish and less extensive support amongst the third-party development community.

Apple iPad Side ViewWe also can’t help but wonder at the amount of marketing and public reeducation Apple will have to conduct to inform prospective buyers about the benefits of its supposed “third category of device” that sits between notebooks and smartphones. Or, for that matter, despite considerable support from newspaper and magazine publishers, just how many broadcast video providers will eventually want to cave and play ball given the raw deal they’ve witnessed Apple give music industry titans. All of which, of course, adds up to a big question mark in our minds as to what degree of magnitude the device will succeed, given that it’s not the revolution in portable computing or mobile entertainment for which we’d genuinely hoped.

Still, there’s certainly room to grow and innovate here, an area in which Apple has always prided itself, as proven through continued refreshes of various lines of consumer electronics products such as the MacBook and iPod. More importantly as well, competitors such as HP, Lenovo and Microsoft won’t be standing idly by either if shoppers do opt to flock to the category, meaning several more innovations in the surrounding space could be inevitable in the near-term future. (Thereby forcing all manufacturers to bring their A-game in terms of more competitive hardware, pricing and innovation going forward, a potential huge win for consumers…)

The $20 million question at the moment, though: Will the Apple iPad finally be the rallying point the tablet PC category (which it essentially attempts to re-brand and package in hipster’s clothing) needs to break through to mainstream prominence? Only time will tell, but for now, we’re hardly swooning – think more cautiously optimistic.