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Apple iPad: who's going to buy it, what's it for?

The 'third device' you never knew you wanted

In case it's escaped your notice, Apple has launched a product. The Apple iPad.

In Steve Jobs' words, the iPad is Apple's "most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price". Which is nice. But as a new type of product, the iPad poses two significant questions: who's going to buy it, and what's it for?

We know that Apple fanboys will drop their Cheesy Wotsits, hitch up their combat trousers and scuttle down to Regent Street. Plenty of wealthy gadget fiends will join them outside the Apple store on launch day.

And a host of rational, intelligent people will buy the iPad because they know that Apple makes beautiful, desirable things.

Don't believe me? Read this Tweet from MacFormat's Chris Phin (one such rational, intelligent person) which perfectly sums up the anticipation the potential of an upcoming Apple product can incite:

"Do I want an iPad as a replacement for my MacBook Pro? No. Do I want one as a replacement for my iPhone? No. Do I want one? Yes."

But even with such support, Apple will need to shift iPads to, well, normal people. And it thinks it can. Why?

The answer according to Jobs is that the Apple iPad is the netbook that works. Unlike netbooks - "not better than a laptop at anything, just cheaper" - Jobs described the iPad as the 'third device'. Something to plug the gap between mobile phone and laptop.

Silly you. You didn't even know you needed a 'third device'. But as my colleague Patrick Miller said recently of 'Slate PCs', the new form factor "scratches an itch you didn't know you had".

I think the term 'third device' is misleading. Members of the iPad's target audience have more than a single phone and a single PC in our lives, and the 'third device' is in fact intended to converge the functions of at least two of them. It exists to reduce the amount of gadgets you need, rather than the other way around.

When work drags me away from hearth, home and cat, I take a netbook. A 9in Eee PC. It's easy to carry, lets me write, edit this website, and send and receive mail. It's far from fun, and comes with a plethora of frustrations. I also have to carry my smartphone (an Apple iPhone 3G) and a 3G dongle, as well as a spare powerpack (and a travel toothbrush, if I can squeeze it in).

Power travellers with more fiscal smarts than me may carry an ultraportable laptop, but no single device can do it all. If the iPad can handle my work needs, it can certainly serve as my portable entertainment device. And given the amount of time Apple devoted to previewing the new, cheap iWorks suite, the productivity side of things should be covered.

Apple iPad

Apple iPad: multimedia

I see plenty of commuters using smartphones to view TV, and the iPad's 9.7in screen can only exponentially improve this experience. As a fast, fun netbook with good lucks and excellent multimedia features, the iPad gets interesting. Very interesting: see you later Eee PC.

Add an e-book reader to the mix, and another device falls by the wayside - although it remains to be seen how much reading you can do on a backlit device such as the iPad.

Even an iPhone seems kind of pointless, given the iPad's web-browsing ability and music player. But I'll keep it around for, you know, making calls (and fitting in my pocket. And Twitter).

Finally, if the publishers step up, the iPad has the potential to be a brilliant portable gaming device. Game, set, match.

It is Apple's peculiar genius that its products almost always add up to more than the some of their beautifully designed parts. And when consumers see the iPad in action, and understand all the roles it can fulfill, they'll flock to it.

Brian Trevaskiss of UK retailer MoreComputers.com certainly thinks so.

"If, and it's a big if, the price converts to around £299 in the UK it will create a whole new category for UK retailers," says Brian.

"I'd expect £399 and sales volumes similar to when the first netbooks launched, possibly more. It's a landmark product and one that will improve with OS revisions and dedicated apps."

With the obvious proviso that I'd like to see one in the flesh before I make a proper judgment, I think he's probably right.

UK pricing will matter, and an OS update is certainly required - to enable multitasking if nothing else. I'd also wager that the second generation model will have a front-facing video camera, to enable VoIP video-messaging. iPad Apps will be hugely important, but Apple must be confident its third-party developers won't let it down. They never have before.

(As for me, I think I'll probably wait for iPad II. I'd like to try out the iPad before I commit, and there's life in the old netbook yet. But I think it's a case of when, not if, I p-p-p-pick up an iPad. Just don't tell my bank manager.)

Related articles:

Apple iPad news

Apple iPad review

Video: Apple iPad

Follow Matt Egan at Twitter.com/MattJEgan


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