Though the iPad seemed underwhelming to many people when it was first introduced last week, I think it’s longterm impact will rival that of other Apple innovations, such as the Apple II, the Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPhone. Here’s why.
(1) A turning point for multi-touch. I suspect that someday will look back on portable computing devices that don’t have multitouch as quaint relics of the past, like black-and-white or CRT monitors. It is clearly a much more intuitive and natural interface for computing, and Apple has now shown that a very high quality multitouch input system can be introduced to larger screens at a reasonable price.
(2) A new entry point for children’s computing. Parents throughout the country are reporting how easily children make use of the iPhone for playing games, again because of the convenient multi-touch interface. I can’t wait to buy an iPad for my own young kids, and I imagine that millions of parents are thinking the same way, especially because the iPad will double as a general home media device (see below). The lack of access to flash-based content at first seems to be an obstacle, because so many children’s games on existing websites make use of flash, until one remembers the thousand of free or low-cost apps already developed for the iPhone — with many certainly under development for iPad versions — that do not require flash and are optimized for iPhone OS.
(3) Launching of a new genre of media device. Though in the long run the iPad, or the innovations it is based on, pose significance for the broader computing market, in the short term its main impact will be as a totally new kind of home media device, rather than as a computer replacement for those who already have computers. Based in the living room rather than the study — and with easy transport to the kitchen, bedroom, or, ahem, the bathroom — the iPad will just sit around, ready to be picked up for a broad range of leisure activities, from surfing the Web to looking at a photo collection to reading newspapers to playing games to watching videos. For families who already have a computer, it will not replace it but complement it. For some people who don’t have or haven’t needed a computer, such as senior citizens, they just might find their adult children buying them iPads for the holidays this year.
(4) The end of print textbooks? I don’t think the iPad itself will spell the end of print textbooks, but it may help push things in that direction, especially in the college market. The use of the iPad in K-12 will depend on broader and longer-term developments (see below).
(5) An eventual laptop/desktop replacement? I think the iPad will replace existing computers right now only in a handful of situations. I do not expect, for example, school districts to start buying iPads instead of laptops or desktops en masse. However, the iPad is clearly an opening salvo from Apple to remake the computer industry, turning away from bulky all-purpose operating systems to a very lean and nimble operating system geared to small, downloadable or online applications and online resources. The iPad can do much of what people need to do with computers but much more quickly and easily, and consuming less power, and at a comparatively low cost–all with a very light and portable unit. Eventually those design principles will make their way into laptop or desktop replacements, heightening the three-way contest between Google, Microsoft, and Apple for control of computing platforms.