Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a very rich, very clever man. He got up on a big stage and held up a new kind of computer. It was flat, and it didn't have a keyboard. This very rich, very clever man then tried to convince a bunch of reporters that in five years this flat, keyboardless computer would be the most popular kind of computer in the country. Some of them even believed him.
The year was 2000. The man's name was Bill Gates.
That year at Comdex, which at the time was the biggest technology trade show on the calendar, Microsoft unveiled something it called a Tablet PC. Just for good measure, the company unveiled it again at Comdex in 2001. But it never particularly caught on, because who wants a computer that's basically an underpowered netbook without a keyboard? The Tablet PC was much like a piece of paper, except it was heavier and more expensive and it broke when you dropped it.
Now Apple is offering us another tablet PC: the iPad. We didn't want one then. Why would we want one now?
The tough thing about writing about Apple products is that they come with a lot of hype wrapped around them. The other tough thing about writing about Apple products is that sometimes the hype is true. So let's scrape the Vaseline off the lens and figure out what exactly we're looking at.
Brass tacks: Apple took a computer, chopped off the keyboard and squashed it flat. It's reasonably powerful for its size. Nobody has independently benchmarked the new house-made 1-gigahertz A4 processor that powers it, but it never once stuttered in the demos, so let's just say it's somewhere between an iPhone and a netbook toward the netbook end and more than sufficient unto the day. The iPad is thin: half an inch (1.25 cm) at its thickest. It's light: 1.5 lb. (680 g), half of what a MacBook Air weighs. It runs a scaled-up version of the iPhone operating system we know and love or at least tolerate. To make up for the lack of a keyboard or mouse, the display is a lovely touchscreen that's so superbright and supercrisp that it looks bigger than its real dimensions 9.7 in. (about 25 cm) diagonally. The iPad can cost as little as $499 (with 16 gigabytes of memory) or as much as $829 (with 64 gigabytes, plus 3G).
The iPad does a lot Web browsing, e-mail, photos, music, movies, games, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, e-books but you'll notice that it doesn't do anything your other devices don't, and in many cases your other devices do those things better. The difference lies in what you can do with the iPad. You can pick it up. You can rest it in your lap. You can pass it around. You can leave it on a coffee table. You can tuck it in a bag. You can one-hand it while reading on a train.
Now do you want it? Of course you do. It's all right. The feelings you're having are perfectly natural.
Back to the Future
Steve Jobs didn't invent the tablet computer. In the past 10 years, practically every serious PC company has shipped one. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, a man impervious to the lessons of history, arrived at the Consumer Electronics Show (the Comdex de nos jours) in January waving yet another Windows tablet, this one made by Hewlett-Packard. But nobody has ever gotten the marketplace to pay attention. The tablet computer is like a siren that calls seductively to computer engineers, only to wreck them fatally on the stony coast of our total lack of interest.
But Jobs likes nothing better than frolicking in the graveyard of other companies' dead products. Digital music players had been around for years before Apple made the iPod. When it comes to finally making the tablet computer work, Apple has a few weapons those other companies don't have. It has world-beating displays. It has plenty of expertise in low-power engineering; the iPad's specs say it can do 10 hours of Web surfing on one charge. More important, to make up for the absence of a keyboard, Apple has its much patented multitouch technology. The attempts of other companies to emulate multitouch are either funny or sad, depending on your temperament, but they are always futile.