Love It or Leave It: Extremist Views on iPad Obscure the Important Points

There seem to be two distinct camps digging in for a fight over the subject of Apple’s newly announced and forthcoming iPad. On the one hand are the “fanboys” -- those mindless, zombie-like lemmings, hypnotized into submission by Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field, ready to take the food out of their babies’ mouths in order to be first on line to pay way too much for whatever shiny bauble the Mothership tells the faithful it suddenly must have.

On the other hand are the “haters” -- rabid, anti-Apple zealots who wouldn’t say a kind word about anything that comes out of Cupertino, even if it was accompanied by a coupon good for a free unicorn that poops 18-karat gold nuggets and could cure acne with a lick of its strawberry-flavored tongue. They relish in poring over every rumor that had been circulated, pointing to each that remained unfulfilled as proof the device was a sham, an also-ran -- a disappointment destined for failure and leading to the ultimate collapse of Apple itself.

There are, of course, other camps, although they get far less of the media spotlight. They tend to include those of us who would like to actually see a shipping device before weighing in on whether the iPad will be our entrée to a magical utopian future or doom Apple to oblivion. But not being from either the fanboy or the haters camp, we are seen by each as belonging to the other and therefore eyed with suspicion and derision.

Mere hours after Apple introduced the iPad, I was interviewed by Chuck Joiner on his excellent MacVoices podcast. I was traveling on business that day, so I had not seen the event itself, nor even read the liveblogs of the announcement. As I boarded my plane that morning, I left a world in which the iPad did not yet exist -- at least not publicly. I touched down later that afternoon, stepping out into a brave new world that was forever changed by a device I had only guessed at.

Whether it was the fact that I flew above the reach of Mr. Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field or that my earlier speculation about the device had been pretty much on the mark, the reports on the iPad I read as I prepared for my podcast didn’t fill me with the techno-lust I was seeing around some of my usual neighborhoods on the web. As I Tweeted the day before the announcement, I was not feeling a gap in my technology needs. After reading about the iPad’s features and capabilities, I was still feeling, well -- gapless.

I -- along with many others -- had pretty much correctly predicted the iPad’s form factor, user interface, compatibility with existing iPhone apps, WiFi and 3G networking, etc. I had also predicted the iPad-versions of productivity applications, like Pages, Keynote and Numbers. Even its price was in line with what I expected -- around $800 for the storage capacity and networking capabilities I predicted. What I missed was the idea of paring down features to reach a $500 entry point -- a risky move, I think, for the lower-end customers who may not realize what they are giving up.

There were two predictions I made that didn’t materialize, though. The first was a front-facing camera. I was hoping Apple believes it’s time for mobile version of video iChat. But even more than that, I’ve come to rely on the camera in my iPhone for a host of utilities not having anything to do with taking photographs or video. No, the real power in the iPhone’s camera comes from things like “augmented reality” apps; apps like Red Laser that scan products and search the Internet for information and prices; apps that let you add a bottle of wine to a database -- even apps that act as document scanners.

The second unrealized prediction was something much less tangible, but much more important. I said that the real key feature for Apple to include was something no one had figured out -- something that we never knew we wanted, but -- once Apple showed it -- none of us would want to live without. Admittedly, that’s easy to say. It’s like the old joke about teaching someone how to become a millionaire: Step One -- get a million dollars. But for me, it was crucial in order for Apple to make the iPad a truly compelling device. I was looking for something the iPad could do that I couldn’t do with either my iPhone or my MacBook Pro. Something that would make me forego the convenience of having a device that fits in my pocket; something that would sway me from just taking my laptop as long as I was going to have to carry something anyway. Without that, the iPad risks remaining a novelty -- a very cool one, no doubt -- but a novelty nonetheless, attractive to a niche market.

Please don’t be mistaken -- I am not predicting the iPad will be a failure. I believe that it is indeed a different class of device and that as it matures, it may well become the transcendent supplement to iPhone and laptop I am hoping for. I think it will probably sell just fine, even in its first incarnation. Between now and the time it’s released, Apple may well add that certain something that makes me have to have it. It may not happen until iPad 2.0.

For now, then, the iPad is still an open question to me. It’s a device that utterly emanates potential, to be sure. Potential that could well change the face, not only of computing, but of consumer electronics. But potential that -- for now, at least -- remains unrealized.