As I walked into San Francisco's Yerbe Buena Center Wednesday for the Apple iPad unveiling, I pretty much expected Steve Jobs to announce a tablet computer optimized for video, web surfing, reading, music and game playing that runs iPhone applications. And that's exactly what I got. But I also expected something more. I expected to be delighted with some not-so-obvious features that would make me crave the device.
I was underwhelmed.
It's not that there's anything wrong with the iPad. It's a pretty good product with some nice features, but I don't agree with Steve Jobs' claim that it's "magical and revolutionary."
True, it can run any iPhone application but -- obviously -- so can an iPhone and an iPod touch. Had they called it the "iTouch-2" I would have considered it an excellent evolution to an already great product.
One thing I don't like about iPad apps is that, like the iPhone and iPod Touch, apps will have to be sanctioned by Apple. I would prefer to see an open platform like Windows or Mac that allows anyone to create an application. I can sort of understand controlling apps that run on a phone but not on general computing devices which, at the end-of-the-day is what the iPad will be competing with.
In announcing the iPad, Apple is trying to create a third category of devices somewhere in between a smartphone and a laptop but the problem with the iPad is that it doesn't do anything that you can't already do with a smartphone and a laptop. In terms of raw innovation I was actually more impressed with the IdeaPad U1 hybrid laptop that Lenovo introduced at CES. It's a traditional laptop with the ability to peel off the screen to use it as a tablet. They won't sell a lot but it is a radical design with two operating systems and user interfaces -- Windows 7 for laptop mode and another when it's used as a tablet.
Some bright spots
There were some bright spots. In addition to its ability to run any iPhone and iPod Touch application, Apple has released an iPad Software Developer Kit to encourage developers to create applications specifically designed for the device's larger screen. And Apple jump started development with its new iWork suite that lets you use the iPad for word processing, spreadsheets and to create and show presentations.
I'm also glad that Apple is releasing an external keyboard but I would have been happier if there were a USB port so users could use any keyboard or pointing device and plug in other industry standard accessories including external hard drives or at least thumb drives. It would also have been nice if the operating system allowed more than one application to run at a time - something that PC and Mac users have been able to do for years.
Cheaper than expected, but not cheap
Jobs made a big deal about the low price and, indeed the starting price of $499 is less than most people expected. But for that you get an iPad with only 16 gigabytes of storage and no 3G modem. If you want the fully decked out model, it will cost you $829. That's still less than the $999 some people expected, but for about $400 you can get a netbook that does everything the iPad does, albeit without the panache.
The one pleasant surprise of the day was Jobs' announcement that the 3G model will feature contract-free AT&T data plans that start at $14.99 for 250 megabytes a month or $29.99 for unlimited data. That unlimited plan is half the price of most other data plans. My hope is that Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile will counter by cutting the price of their data plans for other computing devices. My only worry is that if the iPad is a success, it could further overwhelm AT&T's already clogged data network.
Not a game changer
The iPhone was a revolutionary device because it was the first easy-to-use powerful computer that you can put in your pocket. But, even though it's a bit thinner and lighter than other personal computing devices, the iPad is far from pocket-sized. It's basically a laptop without a physical keyboard that runs iPhone apps. That makes it an interesting product but hardly one that will change the world.
I'm not saying the iPad will fail - there may indeed be a market for the device, but it's not a game changer.