When I first got an iPad a little over a year ago, I wasn't sure what to do with it. Technologically, it was neat, but as a new type of device, it didn't really fit in my everyday work or personal routines. A year later, it's something I keep near me at almost all times and use routinely. It's also dramatically changed some of my information-oriented behaviors. And I'm convinced its effects on me and the world at large are still in its early phases.
When the iPad first was announced, pundits argued over whether it was a laptop replacement or a new form of computing that would find a place alongside the PC and smartphone, though no one figured it would replace a smartphone. At the time, the iPad took a lot of heat -- sight unseen -- for not being essentially a nonfolding netbook, then the darling device of those who wanted cheap, lightweight computing.
[ Get the best apps for your mobile device: InfoWorld picks the best iPad office apps, the best iPad specialty apps, the best iPhone office apps, and the best iPhone specialty apps. | Learn how to manage iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and other smartphones in InfoWorld's 20-page Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF special report. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]
It turns out that the iPad is both a laptop replacement and a "third device" that has its own role. It just depends on what you're doing.
There was also a strain of the punditocracy that said the iPad was simply for entertainment playback -- Gartner and other analyst firms still refer to the iPad and other tablets as "media tablets," reflecting this narrow view of their usefulness. I can tell you that an iPad is not merely or even mainly an entertainment playback device.
An iPad shares a key attribute with the PC: Thanks to software, it can multitask. Running iTunes or other playback app, it's a "media tablet." Running email or messaging apps, it's a communications device. Running a Web browser, it's a Chromebook or other Web access device. Running games, it's a gaming device. Running business apps, it's a laptop. With a credit card reader, it's a point-of-sale terminal. And on and on. An iPad is what you make of it, and what you make if it can change easily, just like a PC. As apps improve, the more like a PC it can be.
But an iPad is not just a flat PC. Its touch-based user interface strongly favors certain uses. You can't get the same fine control over movement with a finger as with a mouse (thanks to all the hand muscles working in concert on a mouse), so anything that requires fine motion, such as page layout, would be difficult on an iPad. Yes, apps can use nudge buttons and snap-to grids to help overcome such motor-control realities, but that adds more steps to do the work. It's no surprise to me that you really don't see apps of this type for the iPad.
Reading and watching
The touch-based interface, though is much more direct in many ways than using a mouse. Pointing is something humans learn very, very easily in life, and touching objects comes soon after. Tapping an icon or button or object is very natural, as are using gestures like scroll, pinch, and rotate. Thus, so is navigation (flipping pages in a book or zooming in on a website, for example). The iPad may be much more than a media tablet, but media assets lend themselves well to touch-based use.