Should the Apple iPad be considered a computer?

Long before Apple unveiled its tablet device (officially the worst-kept secret in the history of technology), we had been giving serious thought to whether such a device should be called a computer or not.

Long before Apple unveiled its iPad tablet device (officially the worst-kept secret in the history of technology), we had been giving serious thought to whether such a device should be called a computer or not. By some standards, the iPad is essentially a keyboardless laptop, but by others, it's more akin to a portable media player, such as the iPod Touch.

Late last year, we outlined the possible arguments for and against each case, saying:

There are two schools of thought on this: either the Apple tablet (or iSlate, or whatever it ends up being called) will be a 10-or-so-inch tablet PC with a full Mac OS X operating system; or it will merely be a larger-screen version of the current iPod Touch, which has a closed, limited phonelike OS.

The former would mean it could very likely run any software you'd run on a MacBook, from Firefox to Photoshop, and maybe even install Windows 7 via Boot Camp or Parallels. The later points to a hermetically sealed ecosystem, where apps would have to be approved and sold through an official app store (as in iTunes).

Particularly with our love for all things tablet and laptop-related, we'd always hoped the Apple tablet would fit into the former category, while the steady stream of news, rumors, and speculation pointed unflinchingly toward the latter.

But, even though the device as described by Apple initially feels more like a portable media player and less like a computer, is it fair to kick it out of the computer category entirely? Within our office, the topic was the subject of a surprising amount of heated debate.

My laptops co-editor Scott Stein presented a compelling case for even an app-store-locked device such as this being considered a computer, saying that the current OS environment we're used to is woefully out-of-date. He added that the look and feel of app-driven devices such as the iPhone are actually much more useful on small-screen systems such as Netbooks, that are closer to the iPhone and iPod Touch in terms of usage scenarios.

In fact, one can envision a not-too-distant future where an iPhone-style interface becomes more prevalent on small Netbook and smartbook systems , rather than a full PC OS trickling down to ever-smaller devices. We've already seen this in a limited number of Intel Atom Netbooks that skipped Windows XP for a Linux OS, complete with a collection of preloaded apps, and a custom big-icon interface.

For newer examples of this concept in action, look no further than the Lenovo U1 Hybrid laptop we saw at CES. Its break-apart design mixes a traditional Windows 7 environment with a custom tablet OS, with preloaded apps and features. Similar app-heavy operating systems can be found on some of the smartbook prototypes we saw at CES--but while feeling similar to iPhone OS, the inclusion of a keyboard and traditional clamshell design puts them much closer to the PC category than anything else.

Another vote in favor of calling the iPad a computer is the inclusion of the very computer-oriented iWork suite of apps. If we're creating spreadsheets and PowerPoint-like Keynote presentations, then its usage model is much closer to a laptop than a media player.

And, of course, the keyboard dock essentially makes this a close cousin of the iMac all-in-one desktop. Although, the dock should really let you connect the unit horizontally, instead of just vertically.

The other side of the argument is that the iPad's lack of freedom to install basic apps and plug-ins, such as FireFox or even Flash, makes this far too limited a system to be considered a full-fledged computer. Ditto for the apparent lack of multitasking.

Steve Jobs actually thinks the iPad is an entirely new category, somewhere between a handheld phone-size device and a full laptop. What do you think? Is the iPad a "real" computer, a big portable media player, or something brand new? Sound off below!

Related reading:
> Will the Apple tablet be a full-fledged computer?
> A modest proposal: Detente between Mac and PC laptop fans
> Some non-tablet announcements we'd love to see from Apple
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