Who Needs an iPad?

Heavy consumers of media will dig it; creators should get a laptop.

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I confess that I was skeptical Apple could create a successful digital tablet when dozens of prior efforts, including those from Apple, have failed. Like some kind of tech holy grail, the future of tablet computing has always been full of promise and fully unrealized.

The big question hanging over the iPad has been who's going to use it? In tech speak, what's the killer app? By Apple's own admission, they're trying to create a new category of device, so even eager consumers need to be educated about what real-world problems the iPad solves. Apple's press conference seemed to suggest that it'll be all things to all people.

While watching the announcement of the iPad, I wasn't convinced. After the tidal wave of buzz and speculation, the iPad seemed pretty mundane. Apple CEO Steve Jobs gushed about surfing the Web on the iPad. Really? Is that what years of research and development have produced: a $500 Web browser for couch potatoes? Jobs also raved about e-mail on the iPad, but it's hard to believe that typing on a virtual keyboard is "a dream." Phil Schiller, the senior vice president of product marketing, demoed the Apple's office suite and showed how easy it is to layout pages, crunch numbers and arrange presentations. The audience, however, seemed seriously underwhelmed. As the live bloggers at Engadget commented during Schiller's demo, "We don't know about you, but using iWork wasn't one of our fantasies when we thought about what an Apple tablet would be like."

After watching the debut video again, however, I'm starting to believe they've got a winner. They'll need to adjust the marketing, though. Apple went through nearly a dozen functions that the iPad needed to nail. In doing so, they've oversold the iPad as an alternative to a laptop. Apple needs to accept that the iPad is only an OK primary computer, but it's a superb second screen.

The second screen works for folks who already have a laptop or desktop and can benefit from a lightweight complement. For book lovers, the iPad will be a very competitive option to Amazon's Kindle. For news junkies, the Web browser might offer a more comfortable way to enjoy a daily media fix. For photo enthusiasts, it's a beautiful digital picture frame. For business travelers making presentations, the iPad offers a lightweight way give a speech using Apple's Keynote presentation software while also offering movies, TV shows, music and stuff to read in transit. For a family, the iPad might be an ideal low-cost solution to sharing computers and Internet access.

In almost all of those cases, however, the iPad is probably the second (or third) computer in a household or office. I doubt the iPad will be anyone's first choice for responding to a stuffed inbox, writing a report or designing a presentation from scratch. I'm also uncertain if students will opt for virtual keyboards over pen and paper (or laptops). Though the iPad can work with various keyboard accessories, none look stable enough to work on a lap or on the sort of wobbly mini-desks attached to lecture hall chairs or airplane seats.

So who should get an iPad? Anyone who consumes or shares a lot of pre-existing media. For creators, those who author their own documents or send a lot of e-mail, a plain-old desktop or laptop will likely remain the better choice. If Apple is smarter about positioning the iPad as new way to enjoy media (and do a little e-mail), they'll have a hit. If they keep comparing it to devices like netbooks and more powerful PCs, my guess is they'll end up with lots of frustrated customers. A few creative types, like visual artists who paint using the giant touch screen, may prefer the iPad as a primary computer. For the rest of us, it'll be a lovely second screen.

Omar Wasow is a Ph.D. Candidate in African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He was the co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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