When Apple dropped the Newton line of palm-computing devices in the late '90s, many people were severely disappointed. The project was abandoned by Apple, but die-hard Newton fans hunkered down and kept the systems going for years afterward. To give credit to Apple, the Newton MessagePad was designed well enough so that even today it is still considered a viable option by some people. Through Apple's ups and downs, there has been speculation on whether or not Apple would revive the Newton, and while recently it has been clear Apple's Newton days are over, the hope for the company to return to palm and tablet computing devices had not faded.
Though the iPhone can be considered Apple's next-generation MessagePad, after much speculation Apple's long-rumored entrance into tablet computing has finally arrived. In the past few weeks the hype has ramped up all over the Web, with fake images, speculation based on domain name registrations, "leaked" advertisements, patent investigations, and comments from various tech and media CEOs, all of which have built quite a stir around the latest "creation" from Apple. Today Apple has put the rumors to rest with the announcement of the iPad; however, what is the purpose of this device and will it succeed?
Apple's Tablet, in a nutshell
At first glance, the device does not look like much, and, as rumored, it basically resembles a large iPhone, complete with a home button and glass touch screen. True to the style that has come to define Apple products, the device looks simple and well-built, with a rigid glass display and a inch or so of bezel area around the display. The display is a full capacitive multitouch panel, as was expected, but is also an LED-backlit IPS (In-Plane Switching) display that has a great viewing angle. The back is aluminum, and there are various connectors on the sides for power, sleep, and volume controls.
On the inside, Apple has given us a surprise. The device uses an Apple-designed chip it is calling the "A4," which runs at 1GHz and is used for managing everything: processing, graphics, and I/O. The system has between 16 and 64GB of memory, contains Bluetooth and EDR wireless connectivity, has a speaker, and microphone, and also contains Apple's accelerometers, ambient light sensors, and digital compass with assisted GPS technologies. There is a 30-pin connector for attaching the device to computers, but it also uses Bluetooth and Enhanced Data Rate technologies for fast wireless access up to 3Mbps. The device has a powerful battery that gives up to 10 hours of usage, and nearly a month of standby time.
Apple has not omitted the option for 3G connectivity. The system contains 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-fi options, but also can directly tap into UMTS/HSDPA and GSM/EDGE 3G wireless networks, and come unlocked and without any contract so if your wireless carrier uses a GSM micro SIM, it should "just work." Despite this, the capability to make phone calls does not appear to be available, but then again it is not a phone. The one missing feature in the iPad is an internal camera, but there may be ways to add one as an accessory, though Apple has not mentioned any support for this. In terms of software capability, similar to the iPhone, the device seems to be limited when it comes to multitasking.
As for the price, despite rumors of Apple targeting around $1,000, it has been able to provide all of this in the range of $499 to $699, and we should start seeing them hitting store shelves in about two months.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he promoted it as an all-in-one communications device for music, telecommunications, Web, and computing, and not just a phone that includes these other features. Given that the features of the iPad are similar to the iPhone's, Apple clearly intends for this device to be used in a variety of areas to offer an all-in-one package for connectivity, computing, gaming, and any other task you might think of.
The popularity of the iPhone has made it a raging success, and it, along with other "smart" devices, has shown Apple and other manufacturers that consumers are ready for a tablet. In order to create its tablet, Apple had to ride a wave of consumer-readiness and incorporated the technologies and approaches to computing that have come to define computing in the modern era.
Apple leading the industry
Over the years the computer industry has taken a variety of turns, with numerous trends and speculation on where technology will go. There have been dives into multiple GPUs, Netbooks, and solid-state storage, all of which have been beneficial, but none that offered anything unique. These advancements have helped the industry; however, they all essentially took the same existing concepts and made them faster. In contrast, Apple's contributions have been key steps forward in how we use our computers.
Bondi-blue iMac: Simplicity goes mainstream
In large part, I would argue that this computer was the beginning of the modern era of computing. With one product Apple did away with the notion of computers being both complex and difficult to assemble and use, and presented users with the first "Internet" Mac. It got rid of old ports and protocols, and thrust modern USB, Firewire, and Ethernet networking upon everyone (though they still kept modems). It also killed the notion that computers had to be in bland beige boxes, and made computing attractive to the average person. Once the iMac debuted, the race was on to add simplicity, along with style and luster to computing.
OS X: A slick and adaptable operating system
The OS X operating system is by far the enabling factor behind all of Apple's breakthrough products. The system is built in a way that allows Apple to strip it down and customize it for a variety of applications. While we all know of it as the "Mac" OS, its foundation and supported technologies are also used in the iPhone, iPod Touch, and AppleTV.
iPod: Portable computing "in your pocket"
Portable audio has been around for ages, and since the Sony Walkman there have been a variety of options. However, with the iPod, Apple not only introduced a simple and stylish media player, but also brought extreme portability to computing. In addition to playing music, it had options for storing notes, contacts, and calendars, and even included games. It also could be used to store personal files, and, through third-party hacks even be used to run Linux. Its popularity skyrocketed, and the race was on to get smaller, lighter, and more "in your pocket".
iPhone: Easy and customizable communication
Another major advancement was communication. With broadband connectivity being readily available on a variety of network types (both public and private), the iPhone became the pinnacle of style, portability, and connectivity in computing. Finally you could have many of the benefits of Apple's other products rolled into one.
Gestures: A natural approach to input
Along with the iPhone, Apple introduced the last major advancement in consumer computing: Gestures. Touch-based electronics have been around for ages, but in Apple's implementation touch has come to mean a lot more than "no buttons." Apple's incorporation of "Gestures" has taken advantage of how we naturally use things. Sure Microsoft and other companies have had "Magic Tables" and other large multitouch devices, but Apple was the first to truly implement it into the computers and other devices we use on a daily basis.
Did Apple invent the technologies behind these advancements? Absolutely not. However, it did make optimal use of them and did so in ways that made them both last and propagate throughout the industry. The majority of Apple's advancements have seen a number of imitations crop up from other manufacturers, but Apple's solid implementations have keep them ahead of the game.
So where does the iPad fit in?
There have been a number of efforts at creating the next big thing, and while the idea of "smaller and lighter" has been an understood concept, numerous attempts at applying this to computers have been less than exciting. Miniature Netbooks are nothing new, and I would argue that the popularity of them just reflects the desire to go smaller and lighter, but does not reflect any attraction to the ingenuity in the developments so far. Most Netbooks have basically been stripped-down laptops, and while their size and weight is nice, I'd much prefer to carry around a larger laptop than work on what appears to be one but really is not.
The biggest advancements have been in mobile smartphones, and particularly those that incorporate touch. However, until now the touch implementations, even when done well, have been rather limited. This is mainly because of the small areas that have been available upon which to do them. In Apple's products, the iPhone and MacBook trackpads are quite small for elaborate gestures, and to avoid potential confusion Apple has avoided enabling numerous alternative gestures. The large surface of the tablet takes touch and gestures to a whole new level, and really allows people to interact with the device using their whole hand.
With the iPad, Apple has finally made an attempt to blend all the recent advancements in modern computing into one product. Being a larger platform with support for a variety of gestures, the new iPad brings all the computing benefits of the iPhone with similar portability. Granted it will not exactly fit in your pocket, but it is still small enough to easily travel anywhere with you.
As for what you can do, Apple has added a slew of unique features to the iPad. In addition to running all the applications available for iPhone, it has a whole new "iBooks" store for browsing and building a book library. Apple has apparently worked hard with Amazon to bring this functionality to the iPad.
Apple's iWork suite has also been brought to the iPad, offering full integration with the iPad's photo features, and a new set of interfaces to make working with multitouch more intuitive and appealing. It appears the current options for this device are only the beginning, and we will see what the thing is truly capable of when third-party developers start revealing their applications for it.