While it's still too soon to tell if it can live up to the insane amount of hype that preceded its introduction, the iPad is, more than any other product the company has made, the quintessential Apple device.
From the almost entirely homegrown technology, to the addition of the books counterpart to its iTunes media hub, to taking a risk on the middle category between smartphones and laptops, the iPad completes the picture for Apple in a lot of ways.
Steve Jobs used "revolutionary" to describe his company's newest device Wednesday, and while that's more than a bit over-the-top, the iPad does epitomize Apple's evolution. Before he even introduced the tablet Wednesday, Jobs brought up Apple's three main sources of revenue: the iPod, iPhone, and Mac have made Apple a $50 billion company. By basically discounting the iMac and other desktops (which makes sense, desktops have been headed downhill for a while), he pressed the point about what Apple has become: It's "a mobile device company," he said. "That's what we do."
Though he didn't say it specifically, he meant it as opposed to a computer company--a name they dropped in 2007--and as opposed to just a hardware and software maker. With few exceptions, Apple makes portable media-centric devices, and of those, the iPad is the one that brings all of Apple's businesses together.
With the iPad, Apple has a device that rounds out the company's product line and also moves the company forward toward being the spoke in the wheel that is the world of media and technology. Making something that fits between a smartphone and a laptop has been a goal for the consumer technology industry for more than a decade. The most recent attempt has been the Netbook. The iPad easily makes Netbooks seem boring and staid, and too close to the same old form factor, the computer. The iPad is taking a different tack: taking tasks that were too big for an iPhone and puts them on a device that isn't pocket-sized, but is more convenient to carry around than a 13- or 15-inch laptop.
It's risky, of course, to try to jump start a category that has never been proven. But it's also part of Apple's M.O.: the company has a vision for the mobile computer and media industries, and a lot of confidence in its abilities.
That extends to the company's manufacturing and design. Apple has positioned itself so that it has to rely on very few outside sources to create the device. Plus, any sort of content you want on the iPad has to be, with few exceptions, bought through Apple as the middleman.
Looking back now, we should have seen this coming over the past few years: Apple wanted a new way of building their MacBooks, so they came up with the manufacture process where it's cut from a single block of aluminum. They wanted to make their own chip, so they bought PA Semi and created the "A4," which notably cuts Intel out of the equation. They also have their own battery technology and are using IPS, or in-plane-switching LCD technology, for the screen that allows quicker response times for viewing video and wider viewing angles. And all of the content for the device must pass through one of Apple's own online retail stores: iBooks, iTunes, or the App Store. Plus, if you consider the sweet deal on the 3G wireless plans (AT&T, no contract, month-to-month), Apple clearly dictated the terms with AT&T.
The introduction of the iBooks store also snaps into place the final piece of the iTunes puzzle. Beyond music, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, podcasts, games, apps, and iTunes U educational material, books was the only thing missing. Yes, newspapers and magazine content did go mostly unmentioned during Wednesday's presentation, but it's conceivable those deals are still getting worked out behind the scenes and could be added later to the iBooks site.
Also worth noting: Apple didn't have to do the iBooks site itself. There are a variety of e-book apps that already exist and could have easily delivered books to the iPad. But again, Apple does things its own way, and books are very much a part of what appears to be a plan to be the gatekeeper of all media.
Secret guinea pigs
In terms of the ways users interact with the iPad, this is a culmination of stuff Apple has been working on for years. Anyone who's ever bought from iTunes, played a game from the App Store, or gotten used to a virtual keyboard was being secretly trained for the iPad.
With the iPod, Apple got us used to purchasing media without a physical copy--no CDs, no DVDs. With the iPhone, they taught us to think in terms of touch screen interaction--pinching and zooming, swiping, and a virtual keyboard, the utility of third-party applications, and having the Web in your pocket. All of those things are the main features of the iPad. And as Jobs said Wednesday, 75 million people that own an iPod Touch or iPhone "already know how to use the iPad."
And that's Apple's philosophy for all of its products, you're supposed to "get" it, or intuitively know how to use a device the first time you pick it up. As opposed to the first iPod though or the first iPhone, the iPad is so similar to other devices we already have experience with that this really can be said to be for the average consumer with perhaps a casual interest in technology.
On that note, there's also some subtext in the initial reactions to the iPad by the tech-savvy set, e.g. most of the people in the room today when Jobs unveiled it and the same people who thought this would be the magical device that changed everything. You may have seen the flood of negative responses on Twitter, Facebook, and at various blogs to what the device can't do. There's a whole separate story to be written about the hype and letdown cycle that comes from these Apple events, but more important is what the iPad's capabilities and technical specifications illustrate: Apple is going to do what it wants.
The company likely doesn't care that some very vocal people want it to have an HDMI out port, or support Flash, or allow multiple apps to run at the same time. Just like it's going to go its own way on having a removable battery in the iPhone, removing FireWire from MacBooks, and making glossy screens standard. Apple's target is not the geek set who care about browser standards; with this iPad, the target is your mom, who probably just wants to read e-books in color, check her e-mail, and watch some episodes of "Grey's Anatomy" next time she's on an airplane.
While we can leave it to the hardware experts at CNET Reviews to tell us whether this device is worth buying, it's clear in any case that this device is both a beginning and an end for Apple. With a new product category and a new part of the business, it's also closed the circle on its media ambitions.