In the iPad, Apple has managed to create a beautiful, thoughtfully designed, compelling product. But is there room for a third category of product that sits between your two most essential devices, the laptop and phone? I’m still not sure there is.

The first time you walk into an Apple Store and pick up an iPad, you’ll understand the hype: Apple has managed to create a beautiful, thoughtfully designed, compelling product in a space where mediocrity was, until now, status quo. But odds are you probably won’t buy one — at least not yet. And that’s OK.

For despite the high level of anticipation for and proclamations associated with the launch of the Apple device, the fact remains that outside of a few select vertical uses (like medicine), tablets are constrained by their own form factor, stuck in the nether realm between productivity and portability. Standing onstage during the device’s unveiling, Steve Jobs himself posed a question that acutely underscores the tablet dilemma: Is there room for a third category of product that sits between your two most essential devices, the laptop and phone? As much as I’m looking forward to the iPad, I’m still not sure there is.

To date, no one’s been able to scale tablets as a core personal computing product, though it’s certainly not for lack of effort. Just about every player in the electronics world has given tablets a go, from Nokia with its Maemo-based N-series Internet communicators to Dell with its Android-based mini-slates to all manner of Windows-based convertible and slate tablet PCs. But the problem with all of them — and the iPad may also be included — isn’t that they’ve been unable to offer fundamentally differentiated experiences from the devices we already own and carry.

Think back to the iPod — before it existed, there wasn’t such a thing as taking your entire music (and eventually, video) library with you wherever you went. But the concept proved to be so elemental that it transcended the iPod as a device, and became a staple in nearly every product Apple makes, from iTunes on the Mac to the iPhone. In his iPad launch presentation, Jobs seemed pretty clear about the fact that the iPad won’t replace your phone or laptop (at least not any time soon), and yet Apple has still been deficient in demonstrating more than scaled-up iPhone experiences (like browsing, light email, and gaming) or scaled-down desktop experiences (like iWork).

Of course, it would be a failure of imagination to assume there won’t eventually be something built on the iPad platform that simply couldn’t be hosted on a phone or laptop. But so far Apple hasn’t shown it to us, which may be why so many are still lukewarm on the device’s prospects. This also might be why iBooks was January’s dark horse announcement — it was the only app Apple showed off that seems to call out for the iPad by name. But long-form reading is still arguably better suited to devices like the Kindle and Nook, which benefit from E Ink displays, while shorter-form media (namely periodicals) went all but ignored by Apple, which punted to publication-specific apps like the New York Times reader. Had Apple attempted to create a new, ubiquitous, standard format for magazines and newspapers, and leveraged its sales infrastructure for subscription content, the iPad might have been hailed as the iPod of publishing.

There’s no question Apple has (re)defined the tablet dialog and raised the bar for the space moving forward. For browsing the web, the iPad experience is second to none; the product itself almost seems to melt away, leaving the user to feel as though they’re literally reaching in and touching the content. And by the time the iPad’s price drops in a year or two, Apple may be able to parlay a groundbreaking product into a market leadership position. But in the mean time, the countdown to launch has begun and Cupertino’s set its sights on building yet another market, we’ll have to see just how many people are ready to put their money where Apple’s tablet is.

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Ryan Block is the co-founder of gdgt and the former editor in chief of Engadget. Disclosure: gdgt is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

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  1. Bruce A. Head Friday, March 19, 2010

    “Think back to the iPod — before it existed, there wasn’t such a thing as taking your entire music (and eventually, video) library with you wherever you went.”

    Huh? There were lots of MP3 players before Apple entered the market with the iPod. It wasn’t the iPod that changed the face of digital music, it was Apple’s ability to legitimize digital music downloads with iTunes. Same with the iPhone. The device was cool enough, but the App Store is what made it break out. Content will ultimately drive the success of the iPad as well. The more the iPad can do, the more it will succeed.

    1. I totally agree with you. It’s not the camera, or the usb port or any hardware piece that will make the iPad a success. It is the apps that will eventually boost its sales and turn it into the must-have portable device. I see the iPad like a blank sheet that software developers can turn into whatever their imagination is capable of.
      Another important point, in my opinion, is that many markets with big problems, like the printed press, the movie industry etc, look at the iPad as a possible solution to their profits decline. They will strongly support it with apps and lower product prices, less expensive movies tv shows, books and magazines etc. fact that adds some points to the probability of its success.
      I have faith in that thoughts and I will not expect for the next generation of iPads, that’s for sure. Although I can understand that many people prefer to wait, I am not going to be one of them.

    2. @ Bruce, While I don’t disagree that content is extremely important and has helped the success of both the ipod and iphone you completely undervalue the part hardware plays in a products success.

      Yes there was lots of MP3 players on the market before the ipod but none that where as easy to use, could store as much content in such a small stylish form factor along with the click wheel which bought in a new navigation paradigm.

      The iphone which actually had less features then competing smart phones at the time became a success because it made its features easy to use for the average joe.

      Has content been important for both these devices… of course but if the devices themselves are too hard to use, poorly designed or a host of other design sins neither would have sold well and the content you speak of what not have come into existence on these devices.

      1. Well Stated.

        The device that comes to mind after reading this is the Nokia N770/N800/N810. Great concept but poor execution. I owned both the 770 and the 800 versions. Both had so much potential. Both were to hard to use and were not reliable When the iPod Touch came on the market, problems solved.

    3. I completely agree with Bruce. Most people use hardly any functions on a PC/Netbook. Most computer use (apart from work environments) is used for browsing the web/watching content/writing emails (not essays/docs).
      The iPad is so accessible for the millions of people who get lost when trying to use a computer.
      I remember seeing a 3 year old child and 70 year old mane easily using the iPhone. They both got it and enjoyed it. The iPhone’s UI removed the concept of folders/sub directors/programs etc. This is what made is so accessible to millions of mobile users. The ipad would offer the same experience and so I believe is a serious netbook killer.

  2. Winston Walker Friday, March 19, 2010

    Very well said Ryan, thanks for sharing these very important points.

  3. i cant understand how experienced tech writers are so unwilling to “get it”. The fact it may be an ipod touch just bigger is exactly what is getting 250 million ipod users excited. If there is no room for this because of the ipod touch than why is there room for a 27″ imac when you can get a 21.5″ and do the same thing? This is gonna be revolutionary and when EVERYONE has one and all the bloggers who wrote posts like this use one everyday, i will be the first to say “i told you that you just didnt get it”. To compare this to any netbook running as desktop OS really shows inexperience. A desktop OS on a mobile platform? the ipad is NTO a desktop os built for use with an input device like mice. The ipad os was built from the ground up to use touch. This will not be anything like your typical netbook you want to compare it to and say have all failed. Still, great writing and good article. I just disagree.

    1. I’m with you Mann! The author has little imagination and will just be one of those people who didn’t get it.

      The iPad makes computing available to the masses, the people that are technically not savvy and don’t want to surf the internet on their iPod touches or iPhones. It’s going to be huge because it will simplify everything (with a lot of help from apps). It’s a disruptive technology because everyone that didn’t have a computer but wants one will instantly get it and feel like they “can handle this thing” once they hold it in their hands.

  4. oww…man…You gave up engadget for this site?

    1. No, Ryan left Engadget to start gdgt.com, this is just a column.

      1. Wow Veronica, you are everywhere! .. That’s a good thing! :)

  5. The iPad May Change Computing, Just Not Your Life (Ryan Block/GigaOM) | TechCombo Friday, March 19, 2010

    [...] Block / GigaOM:The iPad May Change Computing, Just Not Your Life  —  The first time you walk into an Apple Store and pick up an iPad, you’ll [...]

  6. “Think back to the iPod — before it existed, there wasn’t such a thing as taking your entire music (and eventually, video) library with you wherever you went.”

    I disagree – the 6GB Creative DAP Jukebox was available in 2000. I think the first iPod was released Mid 2001?


    1. True. But the iPod was the one that swept the opponents. This was due to the hardware and software integration (iTunes). The product worked. Prior to that it was a pain to get playlists and music syncing to work right. Sounds simple but Apple made it work without trouble. I painfully remember…

      1. …but the article didn’t say that, did it? it implied there was no way to carry your entire music collection before the iPod. Which is simply incorrect.

  7. Peter Cranstone Friday, March 19, 2010

    For me the question remains – what “must have” problem does the tablet solve & for whom?

    The laptop does it all, the smartphone merges content and contact. What does the tablet do that the other two don’t. If anything it actually removes features – and that just may be where the must have lies. Too far out for us to see at the moment. We’ll just have to wait.

    1. “must have” an iPod touch that I can actually read – and use with my “big man” hands and fingers.

      1. That’s good.

      2. Exactly. I can’t use a laptop in a hallway conference, or an impromptu meeting over coffee. That’s why I kept boxes of steno pads from 1986 on that I’ve schlepped around the planet. The iPad is, first and foremost, a declaration of independence from haphazardly scrawled, non-indexed, unsearchable notes. As a bonus, it can run almost any iPhone app out there. But the two I really, REALLY care about are a good note-taking app and Safari.

    2. I do not think the tablet has to do anything other devices do not. I think it is more about how tablets resolve certain issues. The ipad will definitely be able to create another user experience than laptops or smart phones. This will be enough for the success to come.

  8. As much as people hate to admit it, there were MP3 players out with more functionality than the 1st iPod before that device hit.

    1. Again most didn’t just work. If HP had made an MP3 player do what the iPod did from the start, Apple would have been dead years ago.

    2. Anthony Hocken EB Friday, March 19, 2010

      “As much as people hate to admit it, there were MP3 players out with more functionality than the 1st iPod before that device hit.”

      Same argument holds for the iPad. There are tablet computers out there now with more functionality than the iPad.

      But like with the iPod, Apple has made a device which is more straightforward to use in a smaller form factor. And at a much better price point.

  9. On the iPod / library stuff, I’m generalizing to make a point. I’m well aware of early models that used massive 2.5-inch laptop drives (like the early brick-sized Archos devices, or the Creative NOMADs, etc.), but I was speaking more to the concept that you — yes, you, the average consumer with a digital music library — can take that with you wherever you go. That was not a concept people understood before the iPod. And for whatever it’s worth, the iPod was the first device to use the Toshiba 1.8-inch drive that afforded similar storage capacities in significantly smaller devices.

  10. Based on the start of the 2nd paragraph – “To date, no one’s been able to scale tablets as a core personal computing product”, this author and so many others miss what I believe (I could be wrong) to be Apple’s goal, which is to deliver a new personal electronics device, not a new computing device. Think of it a 2010 version of a walkman, but rather than being limited to playing cassette tapes and FM radio, the iPad “plays” a wide range of “media” (music, video, games, personal communications, books, newspapers, visual arts, etc.) that are available today in digital format – both stored on the device, in the cloud and available on demand on the internet. The many computing applications that will be made to run on the iPad will just be gravy.

    1. Pair an iPad with a Slingbox and WOW. Slingbox already has an app for iPhone/iPod Touch, so it seems likely there will be an update to take advantage of the larger iPad screen. I’ve never given Slingbox any serious consideration, but if I can pair it with an iPad it’s much more appealing.

      Maybe we’ll see Apple take the Slingbox concept to reinvent its Apple TV as a media hub for the iPad.

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