iPad mystery revealed, but questions (and a conundrum) remain

David Braue
28 January, 2010
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Well, folks, there you have it. After a months-long campaign of rumour and innuendo, Apple’s iPod, er, iPad, is now a reality (see our live blog here). It may take a few months more of waiting, but there’s little doubt what will be on many of our Christmas lists. Yet as the hype settles down (or begins to escalate, depending on how you look at it), I found myself with a few questions that Steve Jobs left conspicuously unanswered during his on-the-message keynote.

There was none of the leadup, none of the teasing, no One More Thing: this event was about the iPad and the iPad only. But even as the stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts went dark, the inevitable questions started to emerge. How much will the device cost in Australia? Which carriers will support it with contract deals to bring down the price of the 3G version? What content deals has Apple struck with magazine and newspaper publishers in Australia? Will licensing deals perpetuate that annoying disparity, so finely honed in the iTunes Store, between the content available here and the content available overseas?

And, perhaps more broadly, just where on Apple’s spectrum does this application sit? After all, Jobs described it as “way better than a laptop. Way better than a smartphone”. But it does not run Mac OS X applications, like a laptop does, and it does not make phone calls, like a smartphone does. It is the InBetweenPod. er, Pad.

In fact, at first blush the iPad comes off as little more than an improved funnel for our discretionary cash – providing yet another way to suck money out of the wallets of the world’s consumers. As if overpriced music,  movie rentals and online purchases weren’t enough, we’ll now be able to buy e-books and other content to read wherever we go.

Yet what content will that encompass? Sure, there’s a big library of books – but what if I’m stuck at the airport and want to download the latest issue of Rolling Stone to pass my time? Will this content be available? Will I be able to subscribe and have new issues automatically delivered, like podcasts can be delivered today?

A lot of this obviously depends on content publishers themselves, since Apple is only providing a platform and a glimpse of what it can do. This is one of the reasons for a soft launch in January and shipping product in March: I would expect that now the world has seen what Apple is going to offer, content providers will come out of the woodwork in recognition of the fact that this is one bandwagon they need to at least ride to the next stop. After years in which the value of content has been steadily and actively degraded thanks to rampant online publishing and republishing, the iPad represents publishers’ first chance in a long time to put a bit of the financial return back into the stuff they’re producing; witness the New York Times, which a while back decided it was going to join the growing flight back to paywalls.

The content conundrum. Yet one wonders whether Apple will also extend its new content paradigm to its MacBooks and iMacs by upgrading iTunes to support all the e-book functionality. Such a move would significantly expand the potential market for content, but it would also limit the incentive for customers to shell out the better part of $1000 for a new device on which to read that content.

Even Amazon is moving away from the hardware model, expanding its Kindle app to the iPhone (recently made available in Australia as well as overseas). Will Apple do the same, conceding  some of its iPad sales in order to tap into a broader market – a.k.a. the tens of millions of satisfied iTunes customers that are already out there? Asking this question is like asking Steve Jobs to choose his favourite child – metaphorically speaking – but it’s going to be critical in charting the company’s path forward.

Jobs did not, surprisingly, mention anything about plans for iTunes, nor did he unveil the expected updates to iLife or any other Apple applications. Sure, this can wait a bit: the iPad won’t actually ship for another two months, which would be a better time to release iTunes X – especially if Apple can sign up lots of new content providers in the intervening time.

Another question is just who Apple thinks will buy this device. While it looks like a consumer device at first glance, Apple is trying to address the massive difficulties developers have had trying to put productivity apps on the iPhone’s small screen: with iWork now available in an iPad version, it’s clear Apple is also trying to position the iPad as both an iPhone-plus and a MacBook-minus, so to speak.

Witness the inclusion of Bluetooth: the iPad isn’t a phone, so it hardly needs support for Bluetooth handsfree kits like the iPhone does. It’s not a laptop, so it’s not really going to work with most accessories that require Mac OS X drivers and software – although Apple does say it works with the Apple Wireless Keyboard. Thank goodness.

Bluetooth is standard issue on most mobile devices these days, so perhaps it’s just a sign of inevitability that it was included. But in the future, Apple could use it to deliver long-awaited wireless syncing with MacBooks and iMacs, new data-gathering accessories like geotaggers and barcode scanners to make it suitable for data-collection business environments, and so on. Heck, Apple built Bluetooth into its 2G iPod touch but didn’t tell anybody it was there until the release of iPhone OS 3.0, mainly because there wasn’t much to do with it. Now, Bluetooth allows users of iPads, iPod touches, and iPhones to play games head-to-head, although the devices remain otherwise fussy about what they connect to.

And what of a camera? What if I could photograph the scene in front of me, then use the sure-to-be-cool functionality of Brushes to embellish my image? Not for now, thank you; expect the camera to be added in the next iteration, when the addition of improved video recording and editing will turn the iPad into a portable video editor for bloggers, among other things. There’s a lot of screen real estate on that little device, and I have no doubt that developers will find some amazing things to do with it.

For all that, there is time. And while many questions do remain, I think we all admit being more than a little eager to get our hands on Steve’s latest baby. Apple’s main goal with the iPad was to mount a viable competitor to Amazon’s popular Kindle, and it has succeeded magnificently. Amazon may have created a niche and plumbed its depths for several years, but the iPad will boldly take the e-book market where no tablet has gone before.

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