I’m a recovering Windows-aholic, and am happy to report that I have been Windows-free for two years. Though I’m off the Microsoft juice, I’ve substituted a big gulp of Apple Kool-Aid in its place. Apple’s user-centric design, reliability, and style all mouseclick neatly with my techno-Zen sensibilities.

I say that to preface what comes next.

I’ve taken a look at the new iPad. As pads go, I think it’s beautiful – typical game-changing Apple elegance. The only problem I have is that I don’t know what problem pads solve.

I’ve been watching various pads and ebook readers for about 20 years. It seems like every few years, a company will rediscover e-book readers for the very first time, dump a boatload of money into them, get beat up, then beat a hasty retreat from the market to lick their wounds and assign blame. Amazon is responsible for the latest ebook cluster frenzy, with the launch of their Kindle. Of course, the iPad is more than an ebook – it’s a computer without a keyboard or a monitor stand.

Before I speculate about whether there’s a market for keyboardless computers, I’ll first say a few words about ebooks. Will people read an ebook on the beach? I doubt it, but then again, fewer and fewer people read anything on the beach (or anyplace else). I think the fundamental problem with ebooks has been positioning – historically, they’ve been positioned as content for mainstream recreational consumption, entirely missing their true calling in education. I think etextbooks are a no-brainer. Who wants to haul a backpack full of books when you can tote a Kindle instead? There are caveats, of course, such as whether the market for students that can’t afford an ebook-reading laptop is large enough to float an ebook reader industry. There are also usability issues, including the ability to easily highlight text, dog-ear pages, and add marginalia, though these seem to have been addressed in the iPad. Amazon appears to be making an attempt to speak to academia with the Kindle DX, though this seems like more of an e-afterthought than a mission statement.

Now to the iPad. The iPad is much more than an ebook reader. It’s more like a floor wax/desert topping combo. Some analysts have tried to wedge the iPad into a fictional computing market somewhere between smartphones and laptops. I don’t think a market resides at that address, but we’ll see.

Similar to ebook readers, I think the issue (and opportunity) with the iPad is in its positioning. While I don’t think it’s likely that people are going to prop pads on their knees for two hours to watch a movie (iStand, anyone?), I do think there’s a real opportunity in vertical markets for smart clipboards. Smart clipboards could be used to capture data, interact with company databases, call up information (such as profiles and MRI images), and perform simple computing chores such as email and web searches. The potential problem is that historically, Apple has not been big on enterprise applications. Much of the success of the iPad may come down to the availability of these kinds of third party vertical apps. As the success of the iPhone App Store suggests, these apps will come, provided that Apple provides a sufficiently liberal API for iPad developers.

It may not be the mass consumer market Apple wants, but I hope it opts to guide its iPad down this enterprise path anyway. Though Apple has been circumspect about this market in the past, it could hold even greater potential than iPad sales alone, enabling Apple to extend its extraordinary second-coming-of-Jobs winning streak well into another decade.

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