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Apple's iPad: Computing's next leap forward

Its fate is tied to the success of the multitouch interface

March 13, 2010 05:59 AM ET

Computerworld - Earlier this month, Eric Chen, vice president of the systems business group at ASUS, dismissed the iPad as just a big-screen iPhone. I agree -- though I see that as a good thing.

If we look at the history of computers, it's easy to chart their evolution: as time passes, they get smaller and more powerful -- and their design changes to keep up with the advance of technology. It's been nearly two decades since the laptop's invention, and in that time we've moved into an era where portability is as necessary as a constant connection. In this new era, the laptop form factor has become increasingly unwieldy. Unless you're sitting down, using one is an awkward balancing act; it's not exactly the best fit for an increasingly mobile world.

For years, PC manufacturers fought the inherent awkwardness of their products by building smaller and smaller laptops. These days, netbooks are all the rage, even though they're generally cramped and underpowered. But a small netbook or laptop still relies on the same, increasingly outdated design: flip-up screen and computer/keyboard base.

The iPhone changed the game

Then, in 2007, Apple changed the mobile game with the iPhone. The screen (and one main button) pretty much are the device. With the iPhone, the keyboard became virtual.

The iPhone form factor and software combination created an immersive, yet mobile, experience -- and it showed what mobile computing really is. Suddenly, people everywhere realized they no longer had to have laptops to get work done on the go; they could do it on their iPhones.

With the release of the iPad on April 3, Apple is moving to the logical next step: Portable, focused computing is getting a bigger screen -- and while Chen was right that the iPad is a big iPhone, he was wrong to dismiss it out of hand. The way I see it, once I get an iPad, my laptop may soon take the place of my desktop Mac. It's powerful enough and, if I need to move around, still portable. But for most of what I do on a laptop, the iPad should work just fine.

To understand, let's look closer at why the iPhone worked.

Apple's tablet, the iPad
Apple's iPad fills a niche that's somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop.

The iPhone provides an immersive experience because of the intentional lack of hardware buttons -- save for the obvious ones like the volume/silent, Home and "screen off" switches. By keeping the focus on software, including the triggers for traversing menus and screens, the iPhone itself disappears in the experience, with nothing standing in the way of just you and the app you're using. It was a risky move, to be sure; by removing the buttons, Apple's choice was to literally live or die by its software. Despite complaints from those who want a "real" (as opposed to virtual) keyboard, this has so far been a strategy that's worked.

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