Apple's iPad: What's it really for?

It's a way to showcase multi-touch tech, open new doors for Apple

If there's one thing Apple is good at, it's keeping the rest of world guessing about new products while generating more buzz than the New Orleans Saints making it to the Super Bowl for the first time. Even though the world knew Apple CEO Steve Jobs would unveil a tablet on Wednesday, the announcement created enough of a stir to take down Twitter briefly and slow Web traffic on a lot of sites.

Post-buzz, reaction to the iPad seems to be mixed. I don't think you can really dispute the cool factor. After seeing even a handful of videos or screenshots showing the new device, most anyone would recognize that Apple is once again reframing how we handle all the data and media that now make up our digital lives.

Post-hype letdown?

But after my "I can't wait to play with this" moment, a slight sense of disappointment and confusion set in. Some of it was inevitable after all the hype and rumors of the past several weeks. When many of the dreamed-of features (multitasking, still or video cameras, the possibility of wireless carriers other than AT&T) turned out to be just that -- dreams -- and there was no preview of iPhone OS 4.0 as many expected, some people were bound to feel like a kid who gets sweaters at Christmas instead of a Wii.

Beyond that, though, the target market for the iPad isn't as clearly defined as it is for most Apple products. Is it appropriate for business use? Is it a media player or e-reader? How would it be used in educational environments? Is it just an oversized iPod Touch? Exactly what needs does it meet that a smartphone or notebook can't fulfill?

We won't fully know the answer to those questions until the iPad hits the market in March or April or for a little while after it's released. But maybe the point isn't what the iPad is, but what it represents.

Whatever the intended market (I'll speculate a little more on that in a minute), the iPad represents a lot of important things for Apple. It shows that Apple is still looking to lead and innovate in a wide array of areas, both technically and in terms of how people use technology.

Apple's tablet, the iPad
Apple's tablet, the iPad, is a device that falls between a smartphone and a laptop, said CEO Steve Jobs.

Multi-touch magic

The iPad is the latest and most striking example of Apple's use of multi-touch technology. True multi-touch capability was more concept than reality before the iPhone's debut in 2007. In less than three years, Apple has taken that technology and baked it into every one of its product lines. After the iPhone came multi-touch trackpads on Apple's laptops. Then, last fall, came the new magic mouse. And now it's being used in a full tablet. With each advance, Apple rolls out new ways to interact with devices.

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