Steve Jobs debuts the iPad

Is the iPad a game changer?

E&T looks at the latest device to come from the hallowed halls of Apple's research and development department. But with tablet computers having been around for more than 20 years, is the iPad a game changer that will help realise the format's potential, or is it destined for obscurity?

Three years ago, netbooks exploded onto the scene revolutionising the IT sector, effectively killing Microsoft's Ultra-Mobile PC concept overnight and speeding up convergence between the technology and telecoms sectors. However, while everyone from Microsoft to Carphone Warehouse rushed to make the most of this new type of device, one company stood quietly on the sidelines: Apple.

Despite having transformed from a computer manufacturer to a mobile devices company in less than a decade, thanks largely the ubiquitous iPod and iPhone brands, it refused to get involved with the netbook gold rush, even going as far as to describe them as 'junk'.

Even at the launch of the iPad, the company's chief executive Steve Jobs attacked netbooks, describing them as nothing more than small, underpowered laptops, and stating that: "If there is going to be a third category of device, then it has to be better at certain tasks than a laptop or a smart phone, otherwise it has no reason for being."

It is clear that Apple believes that tablets - not netbooks - are the future.

The tablet's second coming

So with so many manufacturers announcing tablet computers, why has Apple's device been singled out by many as a 'game changer'? Part of the reason behind its positioning as the make-or-break device for the tablet market is down to Apple's history of taking existing technology and transforming it into breakthrough products.

Such was the anticipation before the iPad's launch that The Wall Street Journal joked that 'the last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it."

Very few of its successful products have been the first-to-market. The iPod was by no means the first MP3 player. However, it was the first device to bring together many earlier ideas - and some new ones - into a single package that not only looked better than the competition, but also was also superior at doing its job.

It's a similar story with the PowerBook: the ancestor of today's MacBook range, and the first to use the current keyboard at the top, pointer device at the bottom configuration almost every single laptop uses today. It's also impossible to ignore the impact the iPhone has had on the mobile phone industry.

Time for another revolution?

So the answer to why Apple's device is seen as the game changer for tablet devices, it's quite simply down to its track record with other technologies. However, understanding why the technology journalists and analysts have singled the iPad is only part of the story - the big question of course is, is the iPad a game changer?

The short answer is yes, but not in the way that many had expected. Much has been made in mainstream press over how many of their colleagues in the technology media reacted to the iPad. Part of that was down to the biblical levels of hype surrounding it.

However, the other side to the disappointment and derision from many within the technology press is down to the very reason it changes the game. The iPad simply isn't aimed at the technology enthusiast.

"There has been some initial skepticism," explains Andrew Wooden, editor of technology trade magazine PCR. "Some claim that since it isn't really pocket sized, the mobility benefits that the firm enjoyed with the iPod touch and the iPhone has been removed, while the limitations on web browsing, such as no Flash support and no real multi-functionality, have made some question if it is capable of replacing a laptop."

The target market

So who is it aimed at? Put simply, it's aimed at your parents, your grandparents, your friends who aren't into technology anywhere near as much as you are - in fact; it's aimed at anyone who doesn't need the power of a regular PC or Mac.

Think about it. How many people have spent around £400 on a low-end laptop or netbook during the past three years just to check Facebook, send the occasional email and share their holiday pictures on a bigger screen than their camera?

With that in mind, it's easy to see why Apple went with the iPhone's single click interface rather than coming up with a stripped down version of the Mac's operating system OS X. Many of the complaints people have been most vocal about - such as the lack of multitasking - are extremely unlikely to affect the day-to-day use of those who the iPad is actually aimed at.

Indeed, the idea behind the iPad is that it will be left on its owner's couch and be used whenever they choose to browse the Internet or send an email - for example, during a break - without the need to turn on the laptop or struggle to do the same task on their smart phone.

Download! Download! Read all about it!

Of all the potential uses of tablet computers, one that has got most commentators excited is their potential to breathe new life into print media like books, magazines and newspapers.

One of the key figures touted during the iPad launch event was that iPhone and iPod Touch owners had downloaded a total of three billion apps. With the strength of the App Store one of the key differences between the iPhone and its rivals, it was no surprise when Apple announced that it would be launching the iBookstore to supply print content to the device.

The inclusion of the store has lead some commentators within the publishing sector to suggest that the iPad may save the industry from its falling readership and advertising figures in the same way that iTunes revolutionised the music industry.

A lot of the excitement surrounding the iPad's potential is that it could increase the number of people buying newspapers and magazines, largely because it removes the need to go to a shop that sells them. The immediacy of accessing content via the Internet has been blamed as one of the major reasons behind declining print sales, so the ability to purchase the latest edition or issue online and download it to an iPad could tip readership back in favour of print.

However, those publishers in the UK may have a long wait ahead of them to sell their newspapers, magazines and books via the iBookstore as for the time being, the only country that Apple has signed any publishing deals in is the United States. So while the iPad's biggest revolution may come from giving people a new way to purchase and consume print media, it may be a revolution a long time coming.

Taking on Sony and Nintendo at their own game

Another of the features that Apple is pushing is the iPad's compatibility with many of the applications - and in particular, games - originally published for the iPhone and iPod. With handheld gaming worth over £9.5bn worldwide, it's clear that Apple has its sights set on increasing its share of that figure.

While the iPad is larger than both Sony's PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS, the lower cost of development, ease of purchase and alternative revenue forms has grabbed the attention of the games development and publishing community, especially as it relies solely on downloaded content.

If Apple can crack the gaming market, it won't be the first company to use the attraction of games to sell other features. Both Sony and Microsoft have already proved that using one feature to sell another is a viable business model, such as with Blu-ray and online gaming respectively.

A solo star, or the beginning of something bigger?

So how do you measure if a device is really a game changer? Based on the iPad's potential to redress the balance between print media and the Internet, especially with the 3G version of the device, and its emphasis on addressing a real market need, it's fair to say the iPad is certainly a game changer.

Maybe we shouldn't be asking if the iPad is a game changer, but whether it succeed alone, or will it bring forward a new age of tablet devices? "Its not the first time tablet PCs have been talked about as the next big thing," comments Wooden. "However right now many manufacturing giants, including HP, Lenovo and Dell are investing heavily into similar touch screen enabled devices as the iPad.

"When you have corporate monoliths like that leveraging their formidable budgets behind something, it tends to budge."

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