iPad: the giant iPhone

By now everyone has undoubtedly heard about Apple’s latest mobile computing device, the iPad. Appearing on numerous talk shows and sit-coms before its release, every American has almost certainly been exposed to this much-hyped piece of technology. But what is it, and what does it do?

Originally birthed in the eighties, the iPad has been under development for a long time. The concept for a personal computer/assistant/device was first realized in the Newton.

While the Newton was not commercially successful (like many of the stylus-based tablets of the time), Apple has since developed a new language and the tight hardware/software paradigm which it uses today.

The Newton is completely adequate as an assistant designed to help its user organize and remember. It is a practical device aimed at power breakfast attendees and CEOs. The iPad, on the other hand, brings that same level of utility to everyone, as well as fun. It can be used to stay organized, but it can also do much more.

The iPad does not have a camera, does not display Flash and does not support third party applications not approved by Apple. Despite these shortcomings, 500,000 iPads were still sold in its first week of availability. For many, the iPad sits perfectly between a cell phone and a desktop computer.

Many people who criticize the iPad claim that it is just a big iPod Touch, and they are basically right. It is the size of the device that drastically changes the interaction design for the paradigm used to view its functionality. The iPad screen has over eight times the real estate of an iPhone screen.

Isn’t it just like a netbook? Sort of. A netbook really is just a smaller laptop. It runs an operating system meant for a larger, more powerful computer, but has a smaller (usually cramped) keyboard and mouse. A netbook is not designed to bridge the gap between cell phones and desktops; it takes no design cues from mobile devices and just scales everything in a desktop down to a smaller size.

The (decidedly) mobile space niche the iPad claims is for those who like the utility of their smaller mobile devices as well as the power of their main computer, and are hindered by small memory space and large physical size.

There are many people who do not find themselves in this area. Some people are never far away from a desktop and some people do not need much power on-the-go. However, for the people who do find themselves needing a solution to their problem of having to pick either mobility or power, the iPad is a resoundingly solid solution.

All of the bundled apps (Notes, Maps, YouTube, iTunes, iPod, App Store, Photos, Mail, Safari, Videos, Contacts) have been completely re-tooled to fit into the new, large screen beautifully. While they are different, they are still familiar and intuitive. They may be new, but they are instantly recognizable and usable.

The hardware of the iPad is really quite unremarkable. Even the “custom silicon” is just a simplified version of well-known, existing designs, tailored exactly to the iPad’s needs.

The software in the iPad is really what makes it stand out. The larger form factor brings elements of user interface design and human-computer interaction from both the desktop world and the mobile world.

With all the press and hype surrounding the iPad, there are still some details that were pleasantly surprising.

One of these is spell checking. If a word gets spelled incorrectly, it is underlined in red. When tapped, suggestions pop up to replace the word. Another unexpected feature is a lock screen slide show, which basically allows the iPad to become a digital picture frame that can be passed around or shared with friends.

The iPad is really a fantastic device for the people who are seeking that missing link. An iPad would be great for those who do not want to lug a laptop around, just to take some notes or check e-mail.

The iPad is a product for those who wish their phone could do more or their desktop was more portable. You know whether or not you will use and like an iPad, and if you use it, you will probably like it.