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The iPad: Apple's Newest Game-Changing Technology

The iPad is finally here. It's been joked about, tweeted, blogged, analyzed, criticized and praised.

Now that the hype and hyperventilating are over, what can be said about the iPad? As the New York Times columnist David Pogue cautions, it’s too early to draw conclusions about a device that few people have even seen up-close yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to have opinions, so here’s mine.

Design: it’s designed by Apple, so it’s gorgeous. Just looking at the photos of it on the web, I feel an irrational desire to purchase one. Thank goodness for the state of my bank balance that they’re not available yet (and won’t be here in Canada for a few months).

Functionality: here’s some of what you can do with an iPad:

  • play music
  • run apps designed for the iPhone and iPod touch (which include thousands of games, utilities, entertainment software and more)
  • watch videos
  • read electronic books, magazines and newspapers
  • run Apple’s productivity software suite, iWork
  • surf the web

What's more, judging from the video of Steve Jobs' address yesterday, the iPad does all this in innovative, intuitive, easy to use ways.

Specifications: To quote Pogue: “The iPad is, as predicted, essentially a giant iPod Touch: aluminum-backed, half-inch thin, with a 10-inch screen surrounded by a shiny black border. At the bottom, there's the standard iPod/iPhone connector and a single Home button. It will be available in models ranging from $499 (16 gigs of memory, Wi-Fi) to $830 (64 gigs of memory, Wi-Fi and 3G cellular).” Those prices are American, of course. Full technical specs can be found at apple.com/ca/ipad/specs/.

Is it worth $830 US, or even $499 US? That depends. I certainly don’t need one (though that probably won’t stop me from getting one). I already have an an iPhone, so I can run apps, surf the web while on the go and listen to music. I have a Sony Reader so I don’t need the iPad’s iBooks functionality. And I have a MacBook Air which has iWork installed so I can write these columns and prepare mind-numbing spreadsheets and dazzling presentations while in transit.

But the iPad isn’t aimed at me. It’s aimed at people who don’t already have an e-reader, but are considering getting one. Or people who don’t have a laptop (or have an older, heavier, less-capable laptop) but need some of a laptop’s functionality. Or people who would like to be able to watch movies, surf the web and send and answer emails while travelling (the iPad has both wifi and 3G cellular capability).

The device's lacks have been exhaustively detailed in the blogosphere and in the techie media: no Flash support, no multitasking, no camera, and so on. But I don't think these supposed limitations will matter to most people and won't stop people from buying the iPad. What's important is that this is a computer that boots quickly, is intuitive to use (press an icon and a program opens) and is attractively designed. For too long computers (even the ones designed and sold by Apple) have been difficult and unintuitive to use. The learning curve was steep, they took forever to start up and they were unforgiving of mistakes. Power users accepted these limitations and happily spent the time to learn the arcane commands necessary to get these machines to function, but for the average user, who didn't care about gigahertz or HDMI interfaces, it was an exercise in frustration.

I'll give you an example: a few weeks ago my father asked me to help him with his computer, on which he'd just installed Windows 7. My dad has been involved with technology since the 1960s, but there were quirks in Microsoft's latest operating system that were giving him trouble. It took the two of us an hour of digging through various menus and settings before we finally solved the issues.

That's just not right. Why shouldn't a computer be as easy to use as a toaster or television set? The iPad shows that this is an achievable goal, and the other big software and hardware players (Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, etc.) are going to have to pay attention.

What excites me most about the iPad is its potential. Right now it runs apps designed for the iPhone, but soon developers will create new apps designed to take advantage of its larger screen and other capabilities. People will find unexpected ways to use it besides the obvious ones of watching a movie while in a coffee shop or catching up on the news on the Skytrain (how about a portable photo album? how about an electronic cookbook, displaying web-based recipes -- complete with mouth-watering photos -- while you're busy in the kitchen? I can see specialized uses for health care workers, teachers, tour guides, budding movie producers and others).

I'm also happy that Apple will sell its electronic books in the open ePub format, just as Sony, Barnes and Noble and seemingly every ebook manufacturer except Amazon does. Hopefully, Amazon will get the message and turn away from its proprietary format.

Even if you don’t care about Apple, the iPad may still affect you. Just as the iPhone spurred rival phone manufacturers to improve their own products, perhaps the iPad will spur rival PC makers to come up with well-designed, user-friendly tablet computers of their own.

I just might buy my dad an iPad next Christmas.

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