iPad Design: 2 (more) cents on the Flat Apple

Ah, the iPad. Normally it’s bad form to review products months before they ship — speculating on vaporware may be entertaining but it’s seldom very informative. Well, it’s been less than a week since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, and already pretty much everyone has weighed in with exhaustive analyses of the flat Apple. It seems the tablet is revolutionary, disappointing, puzzling, innovative, doomed, and sweet — entirely on the basis of its début press conference! It will certainly be a few months before Peak CMS gets a review model into my hands — but I would never let that stand in the way of my rabid opinions. I’m a hardware junkie, a media observer, and (gasp) an Apple consumer; of course I know exactly what this new design represents after a single viewing!

Anyway, design-wise the iPad is strong. While tablet PCs have proven useful in limited contexts (medicine, field studies, business servicing), the concept is still looking for mainstream success. Divergent development has produced awkward convertible laptops, full-spec PCs crammed into bulky (and expensive) Etch-A-Sketch cases, and rugged slates that look like they were designed for the Gulf War. Against this backdrop the sleek, familiar Apple design makes the iPad look desirable. Given the intuitive interface and popular success of the iPhone, I’m sure the iPad will be equally satisfying in usability terms.

From a look-and-feel perspective I think the iPad’s design is excellent, and of course Apple has a reputation to defend in that department. So why was I so underwhelmed by the its début? I think the answer lies under the hood. The fact that the iPad doesn’t run a full-blown OS X (at least in its present version) means that, for all its real and supposed virtues, this tablet is more “converged electronic device” than “personal computer”.

Its functionality will depend on App Store content and the capability of Apple’s equally new A4 SOC. The iPad carves out a niche between smartphone and PC, similar to but distinct from the netbook. Apple seems to be hoping an e-book distribution model centered on the device will drive device demand and create ongoing revenue, much like the iTunes Store. Apple has deployed this model with remarkable success before, but I have to question whether the convenience of e-book reading will justify a $500+ device that can’t fit in your pocket or run Photoshop. So is it a fine design ripe for our times, or the second coming of the Newton Messagepad?

I guess we’ll all know by summer 2010, because one thing the flat Apple won’t be lacking is hype.

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