Apple's iPad: Has Steve Jobs Seen the Future — Again?

Publishers see the Apple iPad tablet as a savior. Will consumers feel the same way?

  • Ryan Anson / AFP / Getty

    Steve Jobs unveils Apple's revolutionary new product, the iPad.

    Correction appended Jan. 28, 2010

    So finally, after months of hype, Steven P. Jobs unveiled — ta-da! — the iPad, Apple's tablet computer. As Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" ended and the lights faded out, Jobs faded in and got a standing ovation from the crowd, which was composed primarily of journalists. And why not? He creates enough news to keep many of us employed.

    Jobs told the crowd he wanted to start 2010 by introducing a "truly magical and revolutionary product." For six months, as a million tech monkeys blogged furiously, randomly anticipating every possible permutation the iThing might take, nothing would compare — we all knew this from experience — with whatever it was that the great Jobs himself would reveal. But when at last he unveiled the new device, removing a black cloth from the thing that lay covered on a small coffee table, the biggest surprise was that there was no surprise.

    The iPad looks and acts exactly the way the tech pundits predicted: like a giant iPod Touch or iPhone. It's 0.5 in. thick, weighs 1.5 lb., has a 9.7-in. multi-touch screen and goes on sale at the end of March, starting at $499. To the extent that the iPad reveal was a bit of a letdown, it's almost certainly because my expectations were so high. And perhaps that makes me an unreliable narrator for this story. I'm co-opted: I had wanted the iThing (whatever it was) to be a thing unlike any we'd ever seen before, a thing that would capture our imaginations and compel us to stampede to the Apple Store yet again. Because if it were a success, then maybe it would take us — those in the struggling and hard-times-hit publishing business — along with it.

    By wirelessly linking consumers to a Web store, the tablet promises to reverse the free culture of the Web and get people to pay for content again. The New York Times — which plans to start charging for its website — has been camped at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., for weeks, working on an iPad-maximized app. It was lovely, and I fully expect that people will pay for the Times via the iPad.

    A disclosure: for the better part of a year, I've been militating within Time Inc. (this magazine's parent division) to prepare for this day and have been among those working here to create tablet-ready prototypes. So apply the discount.

    These prototypes, by the way, anticipate an array of products that extend far beyond Apple. The invasion of the tablets is being staged by every major computer maker — Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer, Lenovo and others. It's pretty clear that regardless of what happens to the old media business, the idea is that touchscreens of varying shapes and sizes will soon replace desktops and laptops. More than three dozen tablets and related devices were shown at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January, which started with a keynote address by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, who showed an upcoming HP tablet. But in consumer tech, we've come to learn, the show doesn't get interesting until Steven P. Jobs takes the stage.

    No one gives demos like Jobs. But perhaps because expectations were so high and the product — a device that aspires to be King of All Media — touches so directly the livelihoods of me and the other e-ink-stained wretches in the room, his performance felt a bit subdued.

    Jobs did have a few surprises, however. The first was the relatively low price. "We want to put this in the hands of a lot of people," said Jobs. The stripped down 16-gigabyte model starts at $499; the biggest iPad holds 64 gigabytes and costs $699. If you want to connect it to AT&T;'s 3G network, that'll cost you $130 more, plus a monthly service plan for $14.99 (for 250 megabytes of data) or $29.99 (for unlimited data).

    The second biggest surprise: the battery lasts 10 hours, or a month on standby.

    All models are wi-fi-compatible, of course. "It is the best browsing experience you've ever had," Jobs said. "Way better than a laptop, way better than a smartphone." It feels like your typical Apple product: smooth, sleek, a slice of the future. The iPad will run practically all the iPhone's 140,000 apps. But Apple has released a developer's kit so folks can start building apps designed for the iPad.

    Five major U.S. publishers will sell their books via the iBookstore, Apple's bid to unseat Amazon and its Kindle as the Web's e-book king. Apple is allowing publishers to set their own prices, and the titles shown at the demo retailed for $12.99 and under. Where Kindle displays books in grayscale, the iPad makes them look like real, honest-to-God books — black type on white paper, with page turns similar to the real McCoy.

    O.K., so has the maestro done it again? Apple was bordering on irrelevance and financial ruin when Jobs rejoined it in late 1997. How he ruthlessly refocused the company — cutting projects he deemed worthless, doubling down on others and reaching for a future that he not only saw but made happen — will be something that business pundits dissect for decades. Regardless, he got results: in 2005, fueled in large part by the iPod and the iTunes Store, Apple's profits topped $1 billion on sales of $14 billion. And this year Apple's on track to hit $50 billion in sales, Jobs?pointed out.

    That's because Jobs understands that it wasn't enough to launch the personal-computer era, reinvent the music business and, with the iPhone, create the first truly mobile computer. The man is a veritable Innovator Bunny: while competitors scramble to follow him, Jobs races ahead to invent the next thing.

    The most recent case in point: Google's Nexus One smartphone, which debuted Jan. 5, has come closer than any competing product to approximating the magic of the iPhone. But within days of its release, the conversation had turned to Apple. Smartphones? With the iPad, smartphones have already begun to feel dated.

    Jobs' golden touch aside, the critics got to work quickly, calling the iPad too expensive and suggesting that people don't need or want another device in their lives, let alone another subscription service. Nobody needed an iPod either. And maybe the iPad solves a problem — a portable way to consume publications — that not enough people have. Jobs doesn't believe it. "We think we've got the goods," he said. Usually, he does.

    The original version of this story mistakenly said the 64-gigabyte model of the iPad would cost $829. It will cost $699.