Apple’s iPad: Is This the Year of the Tablet?

Apple made its second foray into the keyboardless computer industry yesterday with the launch of the iPad.

Is this the year of the tablet?

Is it the year of the tablet yet, dear?

Similar devices have been around since the GRiDPad was introduced in 1989, although the GRiDPad tipped the scales at slightly over 2 kg.  Apple itself began selling the Newton as a PDA in 1996 but its handwriting recognition software and short battery life hampered its success. Microsoft’s Windows-based Tablet PC has enjoyed a modicum of success but it is mostly used by professionals such as nurses and insurance adjustors who are on the go for much of their day.

In addition, early tablets lacked today’s high-speed wireless networking capabilities as well as Internet content, which today are both more than plentiful.

With the iPad, Apple hopes to leverage the iPhone’s success and create a new category of gadgets.  The iPad supports Web browsing, e-mail, videos, music (it essentially has a built-in iPod), eBooks, as well as applications designed especially for the device.  It will also support almost all of the 140,000 applications in the Apple App Store.  The iPad uses a Multi-Touch interface and a large virtual keyboard (it can also be used with a traditional keyboard). It comes with a 9.7″ LED backlit display that provides a 178° viewing angle.  The machine will be supplied with either 16, 32, or 64 GB of flash storage, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and, on higher priced models, the ability to connect to 3G networks.

Although there was much speculation about potential partners for the 3G connectivity, Apple will continue (for now at least) to rely on AT&T’s 3G network for the iPad in the United States, despite the many complaints iPhone users have had about their AT&T 3G service.

Apple’s iPad comes at a time where there are full-functioned netbooks on the market for under $300 – and these have a real keyboard.  Granted, they lack Apple’s vaunted UI but just how many portable devices do most people really need?  Apple is betting on customers going for a superior user experience and greater Net usage [the iPad uses flash memory and that gets expensive (the 64 GB model is $699].

Where the real impact may lie is in book, newspaper, and magazine publishing. Amazon offers the Kindle, a black-and-white eBook reader, that is the leader in what is essentially a small, niche market.  Amazon has been trying to branch out with an App Store-like offering but the superior (color) interface of Apple’s iPad could put it in the lead.

Publishers are looking to Apple to create a new model that will let them advertise and monetize their content.  Taking a different path from Amazon’s, Apple is allowing book publishers set their own prices (Amazon sets Kindle pricing).  Companies such as the New York Times and game-maker Gameloft are developing iPad-specific apps.

Still many questions remain.  Will the iPad reinvent traditional media?  Will consumers want to carry yet another device (the iPad is not a phone)?   Stock analysts are bullish on Apple and the iPad.  The company’s stock rose 1.5% yesterday to $208.99 and some analysts are predicting a high of as much as $285 over the coming 12 months.

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