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In praise of the iPad: A contrarian view


If there has been an editorial theme about the iPad over the last few days, it's been this: it disappoints. Pundits and consumers alike have been underwhelmed by the name (I mean, seriously, does anyone in the product naming department use feminine hygiene products? How many of these devices are going to be named "Max"?), by the physical design (Can you say "Un-Ives-like Bezel" three times fast?), by the missing features (no camera, no multitasking, still no Flash), and so forth. And yet, despite these seeming flaws, I'm wildly enthusiastic about the tablet. I think part of that enthusiasm is attributable to the fact that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool netbook user... and we are the actual target audience for the device.

Steve Jobs laid out the raison d'etre for the tablet right at the start of his presentation. Apple was going after the part of the market that wanted light computing: more than a phone could deliver and less involved than a laptop demanded. Ergo, the netbook. The list of things in the middle column of his main slide reflected the exact way that netbook users operate: checking the mail, surfing the web, enjoying some media. That's exactly how my parents use their netbook, how my friends do, how I do. We're coffee-shop, hotel, and passenger-seat netbook users. To that, you can add city commuters and airline passengers among those who have driven the netbook craze.

Netbooks are great. They are small, they are insanely cheap, and they offer just enough functionality to get a few things done without jumping into serious work that would demand a full-sized screen and keyboard. I know approximately three badzillion netbook users, and with very few exceptions, they are all Windows users.

I emphasize the Windows users part because nearly everyone filling that auditorium on Wednesday and nearly every blog author writing about the tablet is not, in fact, a primary Windows user. Apple events tend to draw Apple people. And for many reasons, I think that the Apple netpad (Isn't that a much better name than "iPad"?) is a better match for Windows users deciding between an Asus or an Eee or an HP or an Apple unit than it is for people who are living and loving the Apple laptop life.

That's because the new Apple nettop (and there you have another alternative that they could have considered) is not a laptop and it's not meant to be one. It doesn't multitask. It doesn't run Adobe's Creative Suite. Hell, it doesn't even do Flash video. It is, in fact, an oversized iPod touch. And for those of us who love the touch, who really feel that iPhoneOS had brought near-netbook mobility, the iPad takes that promise even closer to where it could be.

The win for netbooks isn't full computing power. Even though nearly every netbook on the market delivers that power, it's rarely if ever used except when the netbook is docked to a display and keyboard; to be frank, that's not the normal way most people use their netbooks. No, it's about convenience. Users pull them out, use them for a few minutes, and then put them away as they sip their venti mocha lattes. Netbooks are second computers for nearly everyone I know, not primary ones.

When you need to get real, serious work done, there are laptops and there are desktop units. And Apple makes some of the best and sells them at a premium. But the netbook isn't about providing the same solutions as a laptop. It's about affordable convenience and mobility.

Almost two years ago, I wrote the following on TUAW:

The computing world is changing. We're no longer tied to desktops. We move around, we take our computing with us. Holding a computer in the crook of our arms isn't just a nice idea, it's practical. When you're walking through hospital halls, sitting in on a University lecture, attending business meetings, or spec'ing out a project at a construction site, the tablet computer makes sense. If anything, the iPhone which has been pushed far beyond its original design specs, has proven that people want truly mobile computing. No keyboard, no standard screen -- true portability.
The iPad, with its larger screen, improved multitouch interface, and expanded software delivers on that promise: better movie screen space (especially on the train, in the car, or on the treadmill), better web browsing and e-mail reading, better viewing of photos, charts, and other data. And on top of that, it plays games and offers an eBook reader, not to mention you can use it for business presentations, either on the device itself or by sending video out to component, composite, or VGA-ready screens. And, not for nothing, a four-year-old can use it as easily as an octogenarian can. Literally as well as figuratively.

In comparison to a laptop, anyone who wanted the tablet to be an Air mini is going to be disappointed. But in comparison to a netbook? The iPad is made of win. The iPad delivers enough functionality to make it a a strong competitor to traditional netbooks. There is, however, that missing Flash thing. It's a big issue for most Windows users I know (possibly because they're used to the relatively smooth Flash performance on the Windows side, as opposed to the doggedly awful performance on the Mac side), as is the relative dearth of enterprise-ready solutions -- problems the iPhone has already weathered for two years. But somehow the iPhone has managed to find its market despite those potential pitfalls. The iPad can as well.

As I wrote in 2008, "Cell phones and tablet computers are all about freeing ourselves." Free yourself from the table, from the desk, and from the power cord. That's what the iPad delivers.

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