In praise of the iPad, 5 years on

With its touch tablet, Apple truly changed the world of tech -- once again

ipad celebrate concert user hands mobile tablet

Five years ago today, Apple released the very first iPad, after months and months of rumors -- and after years and years of failed attempts to create pen-based Windows tablets that everyone wanted. Soon after came the first round of "iPad killers" such as the early Samsung Android tablet.

Those iPad wannabes went nowhere, but the newfangled iPad quickly established a new category of computer, one that essentially set off a decline in PC sales that continues to this day.

Before its release, the iPad was widely derided as a toy that no one needed. But once it was on the market, it became the fastest-selling device in the history of technology, inspiring dozens of Android tablets and Android forks such as the Amazon Kindle Fire.

In recent years, there've been a few decent Android tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab S, but pro-oriented Android tablets have gained very little traction. Part of that is due to the lack of compelling apps for Android -- the dearth particularly shows in the tablet realm where users expect more computerlike apps -- and part of that is due to Apple's smart decision to create a virtuous relationship among its technologies and with desktop computers, which the fractured and mobile-only Android market can't deliver.

The iPad remains a very popular "media tablet" for kids and adults alike. Although low-end media tablets now outsell the iPad, nothing else provides what the iPad does to business users: a truly portable computer that can be your primary and companion device, depending on the need, practically anywhere you are.

For example, in my own work, having a cellular iPad when attending conferences and offsite meetings is a remarkably effective way to travel, and bringing a laptop now feels clunky and cumbersome. For several years now, I typically leave my MacBook at home when going on road trips.

Apple smartly created "real" apps for the iPad early on: iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, Mail, and Calendar. Soon enough, so did other parties, leading to apps like GoodReader, Evernote, iThoughts, Grafio, and more recently Microsoft Office.

Individuals in business quickly saw the iPad's utility, and it became a popular BYOD tool fast. In some business segments, the iPad is now a standard: In music, it's used for everything from displaying music sheets to mixing audio. For sales, it's a tool for presentations and for customer management. In hospitals, it's increasingly the mobile computer for doctors and nurses.

But only in the last year or so have enterprises themselves begun to think of the iPad as a new type of computer for broad use, leading to the Apple-IBM partnership to deliver enterprise apps for the iPad. (Too bad they're aimed at only deep-pocketed businesses.)

IT is typically behind the times when it comes to front-end technology. It resisted the PC, the graphical UI, the Internet, the iPhone, and the iPad. (Soon, it'll resist liquid computing and the Apple Watch.) It's ironic that the IT-level interest in the iPad is coming as the tablet market is stumbling, with iPad sales flat and even down for more than a year.

Although it is a new type of computer, the iPad is starting to look like the old-guard PC: long in the tooth and short of innovative drive. That's reflected in the stalled iPad sales figures: Now that most individuals who wanted one have an iPad, they're keeping them for years because, well, they work fine. People may update their smartphone every two or three years, but they update their iPads less often.

Has it truly taken only five years for the iPad to suffer the same fate as the PC or iPod: advanced middle age? Maybe, maybe not. Five years is not very long, and a digestion period is natural after such a rapid series of early iPad advancements. Then again, our technology cycles are shorter and shorter, so maybe five years is the new middle age in tech products.

It doesn't matter: The iPad was in the vanguard (along with the iPhone) of three key revolutions: a new kind of computing, a new kind of personal empowerment, and a new industry driver (Apple).

And the iPad remains a remarkable, addictive, unmatched device.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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