Only a fool would pre-order an iPad

Apple is taking early orders for its tablet, even though no one's really sure what they're buying

This morning, the fool's parade gets started. Apple is taking online "pre-orders" for its iPad tablet, which is supposed to begin shipping on April 3. Buying a new kind of product sight unseen is foolish. Especially given how mysterious Apple has been on what the iPad can do and what restrictions on capabilities and media access it will place on users and content providers.

Why blow $500 to $830 on a device that may not be what you expect? Just wait a mere three weeks to see for sure what it actually does and what surprises, good and bad, Apple has packed into the iPad.

[ Discover the questions Apple won't answer about the iPad before you shell out your cash. | Keep up to date on the fast-moving world of mobile with InfoWorld's Mobilize newsletter. ]

Don't get me wrong: The iPad concept is promising in many ways. And I have no doubt that the iPad will appeal to many people even if it's not perfect. But we've all seen promising product demonstrations that resulted in major letdown when we finally got a hold of the real thing. Why take that chance? After all, the first-generation iPad is particularly likely to have disappointments, as it's the version that will tell us what, after the hoopla dies down, Apple should have done.

Sure, we can expect Apple to make future innovations in the iPhone OS (which the iPad uses) available to the first generation of iPad devices through OS upgrades -- as Apple has nicely done for iPhone and iPod Touch owners. But the iPad's hardware isn't upgradable, so you'll be stuck with the iPad's relatively low amounts of memory and its lack of connectors such as USB that I would expect Apple to remedy inthe future. And you'll be stuck with whatever iTunes-based content locks Apple decides to place on media content and e-books.

Remember, the same thing happened with the iPod Touch, Apple's iPhone-based PDA. The first-generation iPod Touch could play only a few sounds and even then only at a whisper, so its calendar alarms and new-email alerts were useless unless you wearing its earphones. You couldn't change the volume without using the touchscreen -- a real issue when driving, jogging, or carrying groceries. There was no microphone, so you couldn't take voice memos or use services like Skype. (Apple even blocked external microphones from working on it!) Despite Apple making sure each iPhone OS revision has continued to support the first-generation iPod Touch, those hardware limits remain in the actual devices.

You can bet that similar types of issue will be discovered in the first iPad.

Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe the iPad will be the full "magic" that Steve Jobs promises. Wonderful! If that's the case, buy one when you know it really is magic -- after people not employed by Apple have had a chance to really use it and put it through its paces. Until then, why send Apple your money until you know for sure? Doing so would be, well, foolish.

One positive sign in all this iPad hoopla: One of my breathless local TV news stations had its tech reporter at an Apple Store last night hoping to find people lined up to camp out so they could be first in line this morning (at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, 5:30 a.m. Pacific) to order an iPad -- the station was clearly hoping for the kind of lemming-like frenzy we saw for Windows 95 (remember that?), the first iPhone, and for fan-driven movies like the "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and "Harry Potter" franchises.

But guess what: There was no line. Sure, it looked like a few people were willing to go online first thing in the morning to order their iPads sight unseen, or even head to an Apple Store before work today to order one. But only a few. Maybe the infamous Jobs reality distortion field does have limits after all. (Yes, I know you can't pre-order an iPad at the Apple Store. Clearly the TV station's anchorwoman didn't know when she asked the on-the-scene reporter if people were lining up already. And I doubt she's alone in that misimpression.)

A fool and his money are soon parted, the saying goes. Let's hope most Apple fans are as smart as they claim to be.

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