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New iPad shows tablet trajectory from nice to necessary

Apple's latest tablet isn't yet ready to push aside the PC, but steady improvements mean ever more computing work will get done on iPads. The tech industry had better jump on board.

Apple's third-generation iPad
Apple's third-generation iPad Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Don't like playing by Apple's rules? Tough beans.

Because for the foreseeable future, Apple's financial power and customer appeal gives it a powerful command over the industry--everything from component suppliers to programmers. That poses all kinds of problems, but it also means we'll be moving much faster into the future of computing--call it the post-post-PC era.

Yesterday's launch of the new iPad shows just how complete that power is. Sure, we'll still have Windows PCs, Android phones, and even MacBooks, but the iPad is on a steady trajectory that leads from entertaining toward essential.

The biggest effect I see from this direction is one for businesses. If you're thinking Windows machines are sufficient unto the day because Apple gears its products for consumers, you'd better think again.

Apple deserves credit for developing a new class of device with a physical, immediate presence. The iPhone, then the iPad, showed the full power of a fluid touch-screen interface and excited game developers and other programmers. Since then, Apple has been at the center of a positive feedback loop: more customers leads to more apps, to more Apple bargaining leverage over suppliers, and to more deals with purveyors of music, movies, TV shows, and books. That in turn leads again to more customers, and the cycle repeats. And of course all the purchasing activity is funneled through the App Store.

Meanwhile, Apple continues to steadily improve its technology, though at this stage I'd call the improvements evolutionary rather than revolutionary. To my eye, the standout features of the third-generation iPad are the 2048x1536-pixel Retina Display and the 4G LTE wireless networking. Those and other features lay more groundwork for the enabling the iPad to absorb tasks done today on personal computers.

The iPhone has a clear value for work as well as play. Everybody needs a mobile phone for talking, of course, and the fact that it handles e-mail and run apps gives it enormous practical utility beyond just voice calls. But the iPad has been optional. Nice, but optional.

Today, the iPad isn't ready to push the PC aside. The biggest weakness as I see it is simply the lack of a keyboard. Writing e-mail, commenting on documents, even Facebook updates are just a lot harder with the iPad's touch-screen keyboard. Voice dictation arriving on the new iPad is nice, but it's not everybody's cup of tea even if it works reliably.

Belkin's $100 YourType Folio + Keyboard, newly updated for the new third-generation iPad, gives a taste of a PC-like future for the post-PC poster boy.
Belkin's $100 YourType Folio + Keyboard, newly updated for the new third-generation iPad, gives a taste of a PC-like future for the post-PC poster boy. Belkin

Also missing are USB ports that are useful for plugging in all manner of important things. No SD card slot means limits to expandable memory and photo importing.

But here's the thing. Some people might miss those features today, but Apple is leading us into a future without those encumbrances. You might relish your laptop's RJ-45 Ethernet connector, but wireless is the future of most Internet access and gadget-to-gadget communications. You might rely on a Web tool that uses the Flash Player plug-in, but the future is one in which built-in Web standards are mostly how to get things done.

Look what's happening with keyboards, which can be connected to an iPad with Bluetooth, and extrapolate. Pulling your flash card out of your camera and popping it into a card reader or a slot is a fast way to transfer files to a personal computer today, but wouldn't it be nicer if your camera transferred them wirelessly? Of course, that's what happens with iCloud and the iPhone, but camera makers that want a place on the iPad better figure out a way to get there without a card slot.

Gazing into my crystal ball, I foresee a future in which the iPad steadily gets more powerful and absorbs more computing tasks in much the same way that smartphones are taking over as cameras, alarm clocks, and sat-nav devices. The iPad's screen size has limits, but the high-resolution display lifts them, and in any event I expect a day when the iPad will link up with displays, mice, and keyboards when you plop it down on the office desk.

The 4G network, especially given the new iPad's ability to convert that into a Wi-Fi access point for other devices, makes the iPad a more useful tool for road warriors stuck with lousy hotel Wi-Fi that costs $10 a day or more. Personal computers are great for productivity, but these days, productivity increasingly means a continuous network connection.

Another missing feature on iPads is big processing power. But don't expect an iPad Pro. Apple clearly doesn't want to sell a tablet with a burly processor if that means shorter battery life or a bulkier design. So if you can't make your app work on an iPad--or on a server that a Web app can reach from an iPad--you'd better wait for the A6 processor and its successors.

Guess who still calls the shots
I'm not arguing that iPads--or Android and Windows tablets, if their backers ever truly get their act together--are for everyone. I'm just saying they'll be a central part of everyday computing rather than a peripheral luxury.

Sheer numbers will propel iPads into personal-computer territory. Apple sold 62 million iOS devices last quarter and 172 million in 2011 overall. CEO Tim Cook yesterday called it evidence of the "post-PC revolution," and it's strong evidence. Programmers are following in droves, people are toting their iPads out of the living room. Forrester says 11 percent of global employees use tablets, most of them iPads, and you can bet that percentage will increase.

Even Microsoft believes in the "consumerization of IT," although in practice that often means people bringing non-Windows machines into the workplace.

Software companies would be foolish to leave that market to rivals. Look how many new photo-editing apps arrived on iOS in the months it took Adobe to release Photoshop Touch. Other computing ecosystems such as those based on Android and Windows will carry on, but they'll have to share the market with iOS.

Who knows what the iPad future holds--a camera-augmented version of the Siri voice control system that interprets what we're gesticulating about, perhaps? Cloud-based services for video and music streaming, not just syncing? A video projector? Tactile feedback? Wireless charging? The ability to wirelessly tap into the power of nearby booster processors?

Whatever features arrive will doubtless expand the iPad's popularity. Thus, Apple gets to call the shots.

Want iPad customers to sign up for your mobile network services? LTE has only begun arriving globally, but the new iPad makes it crystal clear to lagging mobile network operators that they'd better act now if they want to be in the iPad ecosystem.

Want to sell displays, flash memory, image sensors, and other components to Apple? Apple will pay, but its power means you can expect fierce bidding against very interested rivals.

Want to sell streaming video services? Make it easier to sign up through iTunes, as Netflix did yesterday.

In return, you get access to Apple's customers. It's a tradeoff I expect many companies will make.