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iPad a “new category” of computing device

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“I really think that the introduction of the iPad is very likely — in the long run — as important as the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984,” said Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and consulting associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Recent earnings reports seem to lend some credibility to Saffo’s high praise. According to the Associated Press, Apple sold over 300,000 iPads in the United States on Saturday, when the device first hit the market.

But given the iPad’s $499 starting price, many skeptics question whether or not the device is a worthwhile investment for the average consumer. Critics have pointed out that the new tablet occupies an ambiguous territory — it is not quite a laptop computer, but it stands to be a much more powerful multimedia tool than the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Whether or not the iPad can carve out its own market niche remains to be seen.

Same old, same old?

“In the short run, this is going to be about screening movies, iPhone apps and web access and text on this machine,” Saffo said. “Whenever we have a new technology we always use the new technology to do an old thing in a new way.”

According to Joachim De Lombaert ‘09, who previously worked at Apple as a Mac Genius and currently serves as the lead engineer at the social networking tool friend.ly, the new gadget has a number of obvious merits.

“I recently brought my 15-inch laptop, spare battery and charger on a weeklong trip,” De Lombaert wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “That’s a bulky seven pounds to carry around.”

“During the entire trip, I used it primarily for watching videos and checking websites, and did a little bit of programming work,” he added. “The iPad can do the same but would have been much more convenient to bring along.”

In its first iteration, the iPad also presents users with a noticeable change: the absence of a keyboard and mouse.

“For developers that means not being chained to a device with a keyboard . . . The screen is much more flexible so developers have a greater degree of freedom in terms of delivering an experience to consumers,” Saffo said.

Indeed, a host of free and priced applications have already cropped up on Apple’s iTunes Store. An overwhelming majority of top-selling applications are interactive games that make use of the iPad’s sleek, multi-touch screen.

The current applications, however, are just a sampling of those to come.

“You have to separate this particular iPad as a product in its own right from the trajectory of the iPads to come,” Saffo said. “This is obviously the first draft of a machine that’s going to be updated very rapidly.”

Consumers can expect innovative applications to accompany these developments.

Making headlines

“What’s exciting is, give this nine to 12 months, and you’re going to very quickly see people coming up with new kinds of apps that deliver new kinds of media experiences that never quite existed before,” Saffo said.

Market experts have noted that the iPad’s ability to function as a tablet reader lends itself well to novel electronic platforms for magazines and newspapers.

“I think what you’re going to see in fairly short order is newspaper pages that kind of look like the newspapers in Harry Potter, where the images on the screen — the pictures — are constantly moving and the text is a lot more dynamic,” Saffo said.

The iPad also has far-reaching potential from a social angle, said Ge Wang, professor of music and, by courtesy, of computer science.

“It’s not so much in the features that it provides,” Wang said. “It’s kind of about where people are when people are computing in their daily lives.”

Wang even sees an opportunity for the iPad to be practically implemented in the realm of music. His Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra currently employs iPhones as its main musical instrument. Wang predicts that the iPad will add an exciting new facet to the orchestra’s repertoire.

“I think it’s really something that we’ve been waiting for in the music technology world,” Wang said.

“We suddenly have a new class of instruments,” he added.

Wang’s start-up also released a music application, Magic Piano, that exploits the iPad’s large, multi-touch screen. In addition to allowing iPad users to play along to programmed songs, “the application connects users one by one so that they can actually play with each other in real time over the Internet,” Wang said.

Fine tuning

But for every zealous iPad fan, there is an equally vocal critic. A number of tech experts have complained about the device’s lack of multitasking capabilities and its inability to run Adobe Flash. And unlike the iPhone, the iPad does not include a built-in camera or phone conferencing capacities.

“Everybody always wants one device that solves all problems and that’s just not the world that we’re in,” Saffo added. “This is, in the short run, not a device you use instead of a laptop; it’s a device you use in addition to the laptop.”

“It’s like the iPhone in that a lot of the uses start suggesting themselves over time, especially when you open the platform,” Wang agreed.

Saffo predicted that Apple will move aggressively to maintain its lead in this new tablet territory; he expects prices to drop and capabilities to increase as a result.

“My advice to anybody except the diehard enthusiast is wait a month or two,” Saffo said. “The machines to come are going to be better.”