The Third Category

“Is there room for a third category of device in the middle, something that’s between a laptop and smartphone?”

And with that, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, ushered in the iPad.

So what is the iPad, exactly? I’ve been seeing it referred to as merely a gigantic iPod Touch. But is there more to it than that? Is this thing just a glorified iPod, or can there be more there?

On the surface, it truly is an oversized iPod Touch. It has the same basic layout as an iPod Touch with the home button at the bottom. It has a thick border around the screen where the user can hold the unit without interfering with the multitouch display.

The screen itself is an LCD display using IPS technology. According to Wikipedia, IPS (In-Plane Switching) is a technology designed by Hitachi. It offers a wide viewing angle and accurate color reproduction. The screen is backlit using LEDs, offering much longer battery life, uniform backlighting, and longer life.

Apple is introducing a total of 6 units, varying only in the size of the built-in flash storage, and the presence of 3G connectivity. Storage comes in either 16, 32, or 64 GB varieties. 3G access requires a data plan from a participating 3G provider, AT&T to start, and will entail a monthly fee. 3G access will also require the use of a micro-SIM card. AT&T is currently the only US provider using these cards. The base 16GB model will go for $499, while the 64GB 3G model will run you $829, plus a monthly data plan. As it stands now, however, the data plan is on a month by month basis, no contract required.

Ok, so with the standard descriptive details out of the way, what is this thing? Is it worth the money? What is the “killer feature,” if there is one?

On the surface, the iPad seems to be just a big iPod Touch, nothing more. In fact, the iPad runs an enhanced version of the iPhone OS, the same OS the iPod Touch runs. Apple claims that most of the existing apps in the iTunes App Store will run on the iPad, both in original size, as well as an enhanced mode that will allow the app to take up the entire screen.

Based on the demonstration that Steve Jobs gave, as well as various other reports, there’s more to this enhanced OS, though. For starters, it looks like there will be pop-out or drop-down menus, something the current iPhone OS does not have. Additionally, apps will be able to take advantage of file sharing, split screen views, custom fonts, and external displays.

One of the more touted features of the iPad was the inclusion of the iBook store. It seems that Apple wants a piece of the burgeoning eBook market and has decided to approach it just like they approached the music market. The problem here is that the iPad is still a backlit LCD screen at its core. Staring at a backlit display for long periods of time generally leads to headaches and/or eye strain. This is why eInk based units such as the Kindle or the Sony Reader do so well. It’s not the aesthetics of the Kindle that people like, it’s the comfort of using the unit.

It would be nice to see the eBook market opened up the way the music market has been. In fact, I look forward to the day that the majority of eBooks are available without DRM. Apple’s choice of using the ePub format for books is an auspicious one. The ePub format is fast becoming the standard of choice for eBooks and includes support for both a DRM and non-DRM format. Additionally, the format uses standard open formats as a base.

But what else does the iPad offer? Is it just a fancy book reader with some extra multimedia functionality? Or is there something more?

There has been some speculation that the iPad represents more than just an entry into the tablet market. That it, instead, represents an entry into the mobile processor market. After all, Apple put together their own processor, the Apple A4, specifically for this product. So is Apple merely using this as a platform for a launch into the mobile processor market? If so, early reports indicate that they may have something spectacular. Reports from those able to get hands-on time with the iPad report that the unit is very responsive and incredibly fast.

But for all of the design and power behind the iPad, there is one glaring hole. Flash support. And Apple isn’t hiding it, either. On stage, during the announcement of the iPad, Steve Jobs demonstrated web browsing by heading to the New York Times homepage. If you’ve ever been to their homepage, it’s dotted by various flash objects with video, slideshows, and more. On the iPad, these shows up as big white boxes with the Safari plugin icon showing.

So what is Apple playing at? Flash is pretty prevalent on the web, so not supporting it will result in a lot of missing content, as one Adobe employee demonstrated. Of course, the iPhone and iPod Touch have the same problem. Or, do they? If a device is popular, developers adapt. This can easily be seen by the number of websites that have adapted to the iPhone. But even more than that, look at the number of sites that adapt to the various web browsers, creating special markup to work with each one. This is nothing new for developers, it happens today.

Flash is unique, though, in that it gives the developers capabilities that don’t otherwise exist in HTML, right? Well, not exactly. HTML5 gives developers a standardized way to deploy video, handle offline storage, draw, and more. Couple this with CSS and you can replicate much of what Flash already does. There are lots of examples already of what HTML5 can do.

So what does the iPad truly mean to computing? Will it be as revolutionary as Apple wants us to believe it will be? I’m still not 100% sold on it, but it’s definitely something to watch. Microsoft has tried tablets in the past and failed, will Apple succeed?


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