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The iPad's missed market opportunity: The computer for the rest of us

Back in January, when I spent part of a morning in a crowded auditorium trying to resist a Reality Distortion Field during the Apple iPad's debut, I had a somewhat wistful thought: What if you could buy the 3G mobile-broadband version of this thing to use as your only computer?


Yes, I know: It can't run "real" programs, and Apple arbitrarily and unfairly regulates the applications you can load on it. Typing on its screen doesn't allow for extended writing. Adobe Flash content doesn't work on it. And yet: A non-trivial fraction of Internet users aren't looking for anything more complicated than e-mail and basic Web access, more of it involving reading than writing. They'd do without a lot of the extras that usually come with the Net--like, say, updating the Flash plug-in every few months or picking the "right" anti-virus program. And if they could spend a little less upfront and each month, so much better.

For a few moments in that auditorium in San Francisco, I thought the iPad could be such a thing. AT&T's $29.99/month unlimited-access plan undercuts many broadband services' rates; its $14.99-for-250-megabytes option might sound limited, but if you have little interest in Web multimedia it can still last a long time.

But then I realized that an iPad would be just as handcuffed to a desktop copy of Apple's iTunes software as any iPod or iPhone. You can't set up an iPad without a computer, nor can you update its software or back up all its data. And if you'd like an iPad bigger or smaller than the current model, there's no guarantee that Apple will make one to suit your needs; in these matters, Apple wants what Apple wants.

That thinking led to the question behind today's column: If Apple won't fill that role, could somebody else? As it turns out, Palm's webOS doesn't require a computer--a Pre or Pixi downloads updates and backs up your data over the air. Google's Android software is almost as untied, relying on that company's Web services for calendar and contacts synchronization (but not backup). You'd just need a company eager to differentiate itself from generic Windows-based computers to step into this market.

I don't know if HP, the owner-elect of Palm (the transaction should conclude in July) has any such concrete plans, or how many other manufacturers are looking to make Android-based tablets to fill the space in the market Apple seems to be leaving open. But I do know that if PC manufacturers think they can greet the iPad with another set of warmed-over, ill-suited Windows-based machines, they're going to lose.

So here are my questions: Do you think those companies will take advantage of this opportunity? And if they did, would you buy a hypothetical smartphone-derived tablet for yourself or anybody else?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 7, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Mobile  
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Apparently Archos is making an Android tablet. 7" 800X400 screen, but only 8GB storage. WiFi only. Now if they'd put a 64 or 128 GB SSD in it... I have a 605, which is a nice little Linux based video player.

Posted by: wiredog | May 7, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

I feel like people who are set on being very productive on computers just can't cope with the handcuffs that come along with being tied to the iPad. Really liked the device, but just didn't work out for me. Returned my 32GB 3g iPad this past week. Read my tech'ed out amateur review here if you'd like:

Posted by: jakenjake | May 7, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

I would LOVE to see a HP/Palm Web OS tablet.
It would work with Flash (which can't come soon enough), and would probably have more storage space and a USB port unlike the iPad.
I think HP hinted at putting Web OS on a tablet when they announced they were buying Palm.
I've had a Pre since Day 1 and love the multitasking Web OS.

Posted by: patchss | May 7, 2010 10:57 PM | Report abuse

Tablets are cool, and on occasion might be convenient, but they're just not powerful enough for a real computer user. I'm with jakenjake -- I'm constantly surfing the web, reading and writing e-mail, and using Microsoft Word and Excel (sometimes simultaneously). I don't understand how someone could give up the basic functionality of doing two things at once. For me, that's what a computer is for.

Posted by: docmcconl | May 8, 2010 7:59 AM | Report abuse

By aquiring Palm, HP has put all the pieces in place to be a major threat to iPad.

But will HP "get" it?

Posted by: boomer5 | May 8, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

If there was a tablet with a real OS (even if OSX), less restrictions, and 10-hour battery life, I would definitely buy it. I hate Apple with a passion and I was almost sold on the iPad by the 10-hour battery. Until I read about all the shortcomings...

Posted by: tundey | May 8, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Apple should be commended for making a tablet PC that is actually usable. It isn't surprising that the thing still has lots of shortcomings - they are still way ahead of the competition. The competition will probably figure things out just like Google did with Android-based phones. Who knows. Maybe they'll make something I want.

Posted by: slar | May 8, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Pass. I will stick with my ThinkPad and iPhone. Sometimes I want to do real work and I don't see an iPad letting me do that. I think most people who want to do real work feel the same way. Set up an iPad stand and a separate keyboard and a mouse on an airplane tray? Hmmmmm.

For casual browsing, an iPad would be fine. Still can't justify buying one now though.

I don't see the market for HP for a full-blown tablet. Interesting idea.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | May 8, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

The news of HP's imminent webOS-based 'Hurricane' tablet just gave me one more reason not to get an iPad. I imagine the Hurricane to obviously be more versatile than a Kindle or Nook, and certainly more feature-rich than an iPad.

Posted by: Fair_and_Balanced | May 8, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

The iPad is superb at consuming information. It could be a great platform for mobile workers assuming the need for data input is minimal. I am part of a task force at my company to study a comprehensive rollout of iPads for our sales force. My feeling is that Apple is starting to take enterprise computing more seriously. One result will be the removal of the physical connection restrictions.

Posted by: niboned | May 10, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

The thing about Apple is that they make baby step moves while simultaneously appearing to make those same moves seem revolutionary. Rob, I guarantee that the iPad is just a small step toward making the "computer for the rest of us." They slowly build on things that are proven and then spoon feed new technology or features. The iPad is very familiar to people because of the iPhone but a decidedly different experience altogether. The iPad simply built on the success of the iPhone. Once the iPad becomes as successful for Apple as the iPhone, you'll see it become it's own thing - one which doesn't need to be tethered to a "real" computer. In my opinion, the reason they're so successful is not because they have the best features or technologies, but because they have the best experience - one which doesn't intimidate the non-techie general public. However, they will need to start taking larger and quicker baby step moves with the iPad since Android and HP/Palm are poised to up the ante in this "tablet" market.

Posted by: rhythmic_one | May 10, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

I found the column amusing. Inevitably, a game-changer like the iPad has its detractors -- those that just hate Apple, those that can't plug in all of their accessories via a USB port, and those that don't like the virtual keyboard, among many such complaints. Having lived in the PC world for decades, I switched to Apple 3 years ago for everything. Apple TV for movie rentals, Macs in the home office, iPhones, iPods, and now iPad. My expectations were: a large iPod Touch, with the ability to function, within limitations, in a business environment, and I wasn't disappointed. Accessory makers will come out with devices that plug into the dock connector (a la camera dongle), and already I have file management with Goodreader and printing with PrintCentral. The keyboard took awhile, but now I'm very fast with it. (the new Clam Case combination case and Bluetooth keyboard will fully implement iPad portability and work productivity.) For those who have lived within the Apple ecosystem for awhile, iPad just makes sense. I only wish it synced wirelessly (my other wishes will be fulfilled in the fall with OS4 for iPad). When not tethered to my desk, I read and write email, surf the web, do research, read and modify documents and spreadsheets and PPT presentations, but I don't play games other than scrabble. Movies and TV are amazing on the thing, but I mostly use a big screen for those. Finally, the best thing about iPad? It is not Windows, it is not a cheap, flimsy netbook running Windows, it is not an unknown WebOS that may or may not be around in five years, and like all things Apple, it is elegantly designed, easy to use, hassle free, and immersive. Thank heaven Apple does not reach for the lowest common denominator. Its focus is the user experience, and there is none better.

Posted by: cdolander | May 10, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Oh, the competition will try to take advantage of the opportunity but, as in the case of music players and smart phones, it will fail.

In each case, Apple has used a formula that guarantees success: take a product category, analyze what already exists, and build something new as if it never existed before. Make it beautiful and give it features and capabilities no one ever thought they ever needed.

Only Apple has both the imagination and the audacity to do it.

Posted by: TheBabu | May 10, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

I'm a note taker by nature. I'll by an iPad or HP's rumored device (or even the Android/Verizon device) when it supports a me using a stylus to input text.

Posted by: Jacknut | May 11, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

Apple missed the boad in a few areas.

1. Storage: The lack of an SD card slot is going to hamper the number of movies people can have on the device unless they pay hundreds of dollars more for more built in storage.

2. HDMI out: Android phones already have hdmi out (HTC Evo). When someone brings a tablet with them while traveling, it would be great to hook up the tablet to the HDTV in your hotel room instead of having to watch on a 10 inch screen.

3. Detachable keyboard. To replace a netbook the iPad needs a landscape detachable keyboard the same exact size as the ipad itself(making it into a pseudo laptop). A small kickstand (like the one on the HTC Evo) could be attached to the back or stored inside the keyboard and then attached to the back of the ipad for ballance.

You wouldn't use it all the time (depending on individual needs),--so don't bother with the "thats not what a tablet is for" responses--but only when you need it. Options, Mr. Jobs, are a good thing.

4. Front facing camera. Again, even android phones like the Evo have one.

5. Mobile DTV tuner. This would have been perfect fit for the iPad's media consumption focus(although I guess it might cut into download profits). Expect this on Andoid Tablets at some point.

Posted by: gwlaw99 | May 12, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

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