Going into last week's iPad announcement my feeling was that Apple is not a company on the ropes. They aren't in a position where they must bank on some immediate new product release to survive.
Because of this, I figured if they decided now was finally the time to release their mythical tablet, it must be because it was finally ready in a form that they felt was perfect.
As I sat comfortably at my desk here in New Hampshire watching the announcement on the live TWiT video feed (thanks for bringing that camera in, Leo!), I initially felt confusion. This wasn't the perfect device. It's got lots of issues. Sure, it's cool, and sure people are going to talk lots about it and, yes, I'm going to buy one, but it ain't perfect yet. I honestly was surprised that Apple decided to announce it now instead of waiting another year or two. At least that's how I felt at first.
Apple Announced Accessories?
At the end of the event, though, Apple did something very uncharacteristic: they announced multiple accessories for the new product. One was a case (great, I thought -- "the first of thousands"), and another was a combo keyboard/dock connector. It was when I saw this that I felt as though I had a glimpse into the future of Apple's product line.
Imagine, if you will, an iPad that multitasks, runs all the apps you want, sports a common file-system, and has more storage, RAM, and CPU power than the initial version will. You leave it in its dock when at your desk, connected to your printers, large-screen monitor, network, and maybe even a mouse or some other input device of preference. Then, when you want to head out, you snatch it out of the dock, drop it into your bag, and off you go with everything you need.
Many of us already do this with our laptops, don't we? Yep. I see the iPad form factor replacing the traditional laptops that Apple currently offers.
iPad: The Future of Laptops
Think about it: the current laptop form factor is not exactly preferable. It's the best we've got in terms of combined functionality and portability, but there are few situations where we actually want this hinged keyboard/screen thing going on. It's cumbersome and bulky, and doesn't really work for a quick check-in. The tablet's single state form factor and always-ready style is much more adaptable for a mobile life.
But try as Apple could, they just never found a way to make that tablet work well enough to replace the laptop out of the gate. So they released it couched as an "in-between" device, something we need in addition to our laptops and smartphones. It's clearly too big to ever replace the smartphone - and I don't see that happening - but the laptop is doomed.
The iPad's Not In-Between For Long
Think about the following scenarios and whether you'd want a tablet or a laptop: airplane seat, a quick check-in to re-read a PDF before a meeting, hotel room, sitting on the couch, coffee shop, your desk. For me, the only place I prefer the form factor of the laptop is at my desk in the office because it gives me a real keyboard and props up my screen. Even there, though, I often just wind up using an external keyboard anyway, so I don't really even care as long as I have something to hold the screen up.
Give me the functionality of my MacBook Pro in a tablet form factor and I'm a happy man. Note I didn't say "give me Mac OS X" on the iPad. The Windows world tried to shove the desktop OS into a tablet for years and has basically failed miserably. It's functional, sure, but not even close to smooth. That's why Mac OS X isn't the iPad's OS. iPhone OS is much closer to what's needed here though, as has been pointed out, its limitations (no multiple active apps, lack of a menu-structure, no filesystem) are amplified when brought over to the tablet.
It will take a few years for the tablet to mature into what Apple's target customers need, but make no mistake: the laptop is doomed and Apple is getting the iPad ready to casually step into its place in the product line. It just makes sense.