Co.Design

The iPad's Biggest Innovation: Its $500 Price

After months of speculation that grew into a fevered pitch of rumor and leakage, Apple today introduced the device that everyone's been talking about: A new type of handheld computer called the iPad.

The simplest way to explain the iPad would be to call it an overgrown iPhone. The 9.7-inch screen is encased in a frame that has the same rounded edges and bevel as Apple's hugely successful mobile phone. And the software operating system is also a more muscular version of the iPhone OS. But the iPad has multiple features that push it beyond that iPhone and into a new category of device—somewhere between a netbook and a smartphone. It is, as Steve Jobs noted during the presentation, a device that's the third way: Half smartphone, half PC.

But what is the iPad like, really? It's a slim slate-like device, with an aluminum unibody construction a lot like the first-gen iPhone, and it's running a custom version of the iPhone OS. It'll come in two versions, one with Wi-fi only, and one with WiFi and another version with 3G GSM connectivity (still using AT&T in the U.S., unfortunately). It's running a custom Apple-made ARM chip dubbed the A4 that, with its 1GHz clock speed, promises to tackle the impressive Snapdragon chip other devices are just beginning to use—Intel can't be entirely happy right now. It's multitouch, has accelerometers, ambient light sensors, speakers, microphone, GPS (in the 3G version) and it has a claimed battery life of 10 hours of video and a month of standby time. Which is incredible.

But that's all the dry and dusty tech specs. Is this thing amazing? Absolutely. It confirms about 95% of the rumors that popped up in the last few days—and it's an amazingly clever move by Apple. In one fell swoop, by building in the iBooks app, Apple's dealt a near-deathly blow to Amazon—the app seems to do pretty much everything a Kindle can, but on a color screen, with fully rendered fonts that appear on pages that turn just like a printed page when you swipe it. Apple's also supporting the open-format EPub standard, versus Amazon's closed proprietary system, and its books are priced between $4.99 for older paperbacks and up to $14 for new releases.

But book reading is almost an aside to this device's other capabilities, which include playing movies and games and very high resolution. And don't forget that the iPad is compatible with most of the existing 140,000-odd iTunes apps, meaning it launches with a huge app directory ready to be sampled. The majority of those apps will play in a smaller window on the screen, and can be bumped up in resolution to fill the screen (with some tradeoff in graphic quality). But with the release of a new software development kit today, there is no doubt that app developers will be upgrading their apps to the new resolution in the next 60 days until the iPad goes on sale.

The New York Times was on hand to demo their enhanced iPad app (also as rumored) and this makes it clear why so many rumors suggest the iPad might be the future of digital newsprint. Seeing this full-featured app, which makes the text come alive (versus the dead ink physical edition) was truly a wow moment, particularly when video clips and slideshows came to life right from withing the wrapped text. Harry Potter's newspapers, anyone?

Apple also revealed that its iWork suite had been completely re-worked for the device, with each app carefully tuned to work with a multitouch screen. Pages, Numbers and Keynote all seem to work dreamily on the iPad—and you can even present your data via a VGA convertor link through its 30-pin dock. The apps are an astonishingly cheap $9.99 each. And remember: These things are compatible with Microsoft Office files...meaning Apple just took a huge swipe at MS's much-vaunted tablet plans. Because, let's face it, which tablet would you prefer to be using on that 8-hour business flight to check out a movie, and tweak your financial calculations?

To be honest, iWork is not primarily what you'll want to use this device for. It's an entertainment gadget, at the end of the day. But what today's iWork demo showed was a stunning variety of touch gestures and functions that preview a few of the new ways you'll be able to interact with this device, from cut and paste to alternate keyboards based on what kind of work you're engaged in.

Buried within Apple's presentation were a handful of features that are almost too small to be noteworthy in themselves, but sum up to a machine that's going to be fantastic from a user interface perspective—like the spyglass "preview" effect for browsing document pages when you run a finger own the right side of the page. It's attention to detail like this that makes the iPhone stand out from all the other smartphone OS's, and it's done here on a more powerful machine with a bigger screen and far more capability. 

The iPad also feels extremely sturdy in the hand, matching the iPhone's "light but rugged" physical form. Phil Schiller even explained why Apple chose the IPS (in-plane switching) LCD technology over other competing versions—it makes for a much greater viewing angle. This is another Apple fine detail which'll be damn useful when you're using this thing flat on a table top. The screen is also only slightly lower resolution than a MacBook, but is physically smaller, which leads to more dots per inch and thus a smoother rendering of fonts, so it can easily compete with the Kindle's eye-friendly e-ink tech.

As always, there are some things missing (webcams for one, which'll upset many a user, and no stereo speakers either). But there's one final absolutely killer feature about this device. Its entry price is only $500. How the heck Apple has managed to optimize its design and production pipelines so tightly boggles the mind. $500 places it almost in netbook territory, with all that added Apple cachet, and makes it a major threat to Amazon's single-use and now archaic-seeming Kindle DX (and probably the cheaper Kindle 2 too, from a multipurpose point of view). $500 is also a figure that could threaten the iPod Touch, with its $399 high-end price for a 64GB machine—we're guessing Apple will drop this price soon. Of course the iPad's price scales with more storage inside the iPad—just like the iPhone—and of course a 3G option costs $130 more, so the top price for a 64GB iPad is a high-sounding $829. But that's still $170 cheaper than the heavily-rumored $1,000 price tag.

It's the price that makes this thing revolutionary, along with its UI. Yes, if you opt for the $30 all-you-can eat data plan in the U.S. it's going to cost you a lot more... but you probably already own an iPhone, and there may be the option of Bluetooth tethering to think about (it already works outside the U.S., but Apple tells us they're still in negotiations with carriers.)

In some ways the iPad is exactly what we expected technically, and slightly less than we'd hoped for—and we'll be looking at its shortcomings in the near future. But that $500 really makes it a game-changer.

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