The iPad's No-Problem Problem

Apple's ipad

Haven't seen enough commentary and analysis on the iPad yet? As the smoke clears on the world's most hyped product launch ever, one thing that seems clear is that the Apple tablet isn't the answer to a particular problem.

The iPod/iTunes system gave people a convenient, if closed, way to get digital music. As such, it also benefited the music industry by providing a popular legal alternative to piracy. When the iPhone came along, it allowed users to combine a phone and a music player and digital camera in a single device.

But the iPad isn't intended to replace either a smartphone or a laptop but to stand on its own as a third product category. "The bar is pretty high. It has to be far better at doing some key things. We think we have the goods," acknowledged Apple CEO Steve Jobs during the iPad unveiling Wednesday.

On that point it appears Apple has disappointed technophiles, releasing what's been described mainly as a supersized iPod, lacking a Web cam, multi-tasking capability, TV subscription service, and no service plan with Verizon Wireless, as rumored. But even assuming the iPad is already the best tablet device on the market, its success will depend more on demand generation than prior Apple products.

The Kindle's e-ink technology arguably make the Amazon device still a better e-reader than the iPad and for $200 less. And when it comes to magazines and newspapers, publishers may be counting on the iPad and other tablets to reverse their fortunes but strong consumer response is far from assured. Print versions are still cheap and portable and online editions, for now, are mostly free.

To take off, the iPad will have to be the type of product people didn't know they needed until they had it. It sure looks cool. And with its vaunted marketing prowess, Apple is certainly capable of stoking that kind of techno-lust. But if not, the iPad could prove more "Ishtar" than "Avatar."

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