The 60 days between the end of January and Saturday have given us, and other really smart people, a lot of time to think about the iPad and what it means.
The predominant strain of philosophical thought amongst pro-Pad punditry is that it's the computer revolution we've been waiting for since the original Macintosh introduced the world to the desktop. It's the computer that's finally going to tear all of that down, a Raskian revolution of the simple, not the complex. Cue Woz, "It's like a restart. We all say we want things to be simpler. All of a sudden we have this simple thing."
Steven Levy, the thinking man's tech writer, says it's the first computer that's really made for the way our world is now:
It represents an ambitious rethinking of how we use computers. No more files and folders, physical keyboards and mouses. Instead, the iPad offers a streamlined yet powerful intuitive experience that's psychically in tune with our mobile, attention-challenged, super-connected new century.
This is a far cry from what the masses bellowed, echoing our resident smarmy-but-actually-washed guy:
If this is supposed to be a replacement for netbooks, how can it possibly not have multitasking?...This is the same big, ugly touchscreen keyboard we've seen on other tablets....widescreen movies look lousy on this thing thanks to its 4:3 screen...Flash will leave huge, gaping holes in websites.
The smart guy response to anyone pointing out the lack of an orifice for USB cables is that they don't get it, as developer Fraser Speirs dismissed the wave of disappointment:
What you're seeing in the industry's reaction to the iPad is nothing less than future shock…The tech industry will be in paroxysms of future shock for some time to come. Many will cling to their January-26th notions of what it takes to get 'real work' done; cling to the idea that the computer-based part of it is the 'real work'.
The clearest gulf between believers and non-believers, very simply, is whether or not they've used the iPad. People who've used the iPad are a select group, obviously picked by Apple, this is true. But the divide is stark. Total conviction, like Dan Lyons, aka Fake Steve Jobs:
Yet my first thought, as I watched Jobs run through his demo, was that it seemed like no big deal. It's a bigger version of the iPod Touch, right? Then I got a chance to use an iPad, and it hit me: I want one. Like the best Apple products, the user interface is so natural it disappears.
The minute I touched the iPad at the Apple event a few weeks ago, I knew my world and my idea of computing had been transformed, irrevocably and irreversibly.
Just contrast their feelings with noted mobile gadget dude, James Kendrick from jkOnTheRun, who didn't handle one, but wrote immediately after the announcement:
The iPad doesn't offer anything that makes it a must-have gadget, and that's the issue that confronts Apple in driving the adoption of it for most people.
But it's worth asking, why were some people utterly disappointed? Why doesn't everybody see what these digerati see, that the iPad will change everything, that it's the future of computing? Well, it's not very obvious from Apple actually showed the world. You know, it looks a lot like just a big iPhone.
What people expected, or rather, what they hoped for, was something truly radical, a device they couldn't have possibly imagined. Even people who were at the keynote initially felt a numb sense of disappointment, a dull sensation of having really known all along what Apple would reveal, a hole in their stomach where there should've been shock and delight.
I'm still really excited to spend some time with the iPad, but I'm not sold on tablets as a 'third device.' And that's not even necessarily Apple's fault, I just think tablets live in a nether region where you lose many of the best qualities of both handhelds and productivity devices. Watching movies and browsing the web on tablets is great—and on the iPad I think it'll be phenomenal—but that isn't an everyone-in-the-world-must-have-this kind of experience.
Even amongst the believers, the existential question is not open and closed. In fact, most would contend (like me) that we don't know how it's really going to be used yet, but that's part of the point. As Daring Fireball's John Gruber (very much a believer) told me via email:
I don't think Apple knows exactly what the iPad is going to be popular for yet. For example, it could be that iBooks never really takes off—that Amazon is right and e-ink is the right form factor for long-form book reading. But yet the iPad could still prove immensely popular for something else, like watching movies and TV shows.
The iPad's potential lies entirely in what developers and content producers create for it, in other words. So the other crisis, the other philosophical BIG PROBLEM that emerged as a strain amongst the thinking nerds, is the future of computing in this vein, though a very Zen garden of natural simplicity, is one that's closed, not open. And that's a terrible loss, as Googler Mark Pilgrim puts it:
Once upon a time, Apple made the machines that made me who I am. I became who I am by tinkering. Now it seems they're doing everything in their power to stop my kids from finding that sense of wonder. Apple has declared war on the tinkerers of the world.
A corollary argument is that it's essentially incapable of being used to create content, that "For creative people, this device is nothing." The counter, proffered by our own dear Joel, "Well guess what? Only shade-tree tweakers give a flip about creating their own tools. Most people want to use the quality tools at hand to create something new." And indeed, our first peek at apps suggest there's going to be a fair bit of software toolage to create things.
Which brings me to a fascinating point raised by Ultimi Barbarorum and echoed in the quote below in the Economist, ultimately looping us back to the beginning: It's the first Apple computer that's affordable to the middle class in China, which is beginning to lust after premium-styled products:
The iPad's simple, touch-based interface could appeal to people who find existing computers too complex, or people buying a computer for the first time in the developing world.
Imagine computing for the masses, on a brand new scale.
Truth be told, the real masses could be thinking something else entirely, come Saturday. But that's a whole three days away.