Apple's iPad Is for Moms Now, Techies Later

The tech writers I run with can be a nasty bunch. The folks who comment on our sites are even worse. When Apple unveiled their iPad two months ago, the tech blogosphere lit up with all sorts of naysaying ranging from, "It's a giant iPod Touch. Who cares?" to "They couldn't even put an SD card slot in the thing? Seriously?" That was to be expected.

What I didn't anticipate was the email from my mom not two hours after the event finished up. "Just reviewed your iPad coverage on the site. I think this should be my new toy." That was followed up by three more messages from other of my "elders," shall we say, wanting to know about iPad -- Did I go to the event? Did I try it? When would it be out? Should they get one?

Now my mom following my career is no surprise. She's my mom, and she's awesome, and yes she even has an interest in the latest tech (a few months back she called me up to ask if she should get a BlackBerry after someone at a cocktail party used his to look up the answer to a trivia question). But three other friends, all aged 55 or over, hitting me up for iPad advice within hours of the launch? That was noteworthy.

Apple knows how to capture consumer imagination, and they know how to make technology simple. For all the high-end geeks crying foul over what iPad can't do -- no multitasking, no user installation of apps beyond the Apple-controlled store, no Flash content in the Web browser, and so on -- millions of average consumers are much more interested in what this thing can do.

And what's that? What can the iPad do? In a word, it can simplify computing.

iPads aren't going to replace laptops and high-end desktop machines for folks who need to develop software, edit video, or wrangle complicated financial data on a daily basis. But most consumers don't need to do that stuff. Most consumers, when they're away from their workplace and work tasks, use their computers to surf the Web, read emails, and enjoy photos, music, and video. Netbooks became popular because they offered a lightweight, low-cost solution for handling those core tasks, but their appeal is still relegated to students and other tech enthusiasts willing to put up with a shrunken laptop experience. Running a full-fledged computer OS like Windows Vista on a tiny computer with a tiny keyboard, tiny trackpad, and tiny processor isn't for everyone. It's certainly not for my mom (though my dad loves his netbook).

What Apple's doing isn't about specs and features; it's about the experience. They did it with the original iPod and they did it again with the iPhone -- both products read as underpowered oddballs based on their spec sheets alone. Pundits (like me) scoffed at the first iPod's high price and relatively low storage space, and we again scoffed at the first iPhone's lack of bleeding edge tech like 3G connectivity and support for video capture and MMS messaging. And yet both products went on to upend their respective markets while raking in absurd amounts of revenue for Apple, Inc.

iPad is another product out of that same mold, aiming to create and dominate a category that didn't really exist before it. Personally I think Apple misstepped a bit during the iPad launch, positioning the device as something between a smartphone and laptop, offering the best Web experience possible. I'd rather have seen them hype the tablet computer's unique combination of power and ease of use, offering dead-simple -- and fun! -- access to those core features that most people use most computers for most of the time. Web? Email? Photos? Just touch the thing! Grab and swipe and pinch-to-zoom objects on the screen and manipulate them to do what you want: Rotate a photo with a snap of the wrist! Move events in your calendar by actually moving them! Delete old emails by flicking them off the screen!

Steve Jobs is so excited about iPad's potential because it's his company's next big step towards the ultimate goal of every consumer tech company on Earth: To remove the technology layer from the product, leaving the user with the purest experience possible. Directory structures and preference panels and file extensions and even the keyboard and mouse themselves only get in the way of the user experience of consuming and manipulating information. A multitouch display backed by a dead simple user interface removes as much of that annoying technology stuff as possible from the experience. Or it should, anyway.

Beyond the simplicity is iPad's other great genius. It's a blank slate for software developers, and it's powered by perhaps the best one-two punch of product and marketing in the world. A cursory glance around the tech blogosphere today shows those same early naysayers getting excited about forthcoming iPad apps in all sorts of categories ranging from games to DJ tools to digital painting software suitable for use with fingertip or stylus. The iPhone App Store has been a runaway success, so why wouldn't an iPad app store follow suit? Consumers love simplicity, ease of access, and choice, all of which Apple serves up in spades.

And oh yeah, then there's that whole bit about Apple aiming to take out Amazon's Kindle with iPad's e-reader app, and causing everyone from CBS to The New York Times to redo their websites to serve iPad-friendly streaming video. And those network TV deals Apple's supposedly in 11th hour negotiations to get done before iPads reach consumers on Saturday? iPads will already be able to download plenty of TV and movies via iTunes, but a subscription-TV service would be a nice boon, no?

So wait ... It's a half-pound computer with a simple interface that you control by touching and gesturing on the screen. It's a computer that handles email and Web and media, but also can be used for DJing and painting and handling basic office suite tasks. And it's also a computer that serves up books, magazines and TV shows on the go? For 500 bucks? Could be kinda catchy, no?