I've had some time to play around with my friends' Apple iPads since it was released. My initial impression? It's gorgeous ... but limited. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing will depend on what you want it for.
Apple built the iPad as a consumption device, and it excels at that role. While some dismiss the iPad as little more than an oversized iPad touch, this misses its primary appeal: it's huge, glossy screen. Yes, I can look at PDFs and comic books on an iPod touch, but what I see is a tiny fraction of what appears on the iPad. On a tablet, comic books loaded using the Marvel app display full-screen and are easily readable. You can zoom in if you like, but it's not essential.
The same goes for PDFs -- while there are several different ways to get PDFs onto your iPad, once they're loaded they're far easier to read than on a phone or a smaller device, like the Kindle or Nook. It surprises me that the iPad doesn’t do this natively – PDF support has always been strong in OS X – but perhaps the Adobe Flash spat is carrying over to this as well.
Web sites look great ... unless they're dependent on Flash, but honestly I dislike Flash sites and I already knew it would do that. My favorite sites tend to be blogs and text-heavy sites, and all displayed beautifully on the iPad. I see it as a great platform for casual reading with one caveat: weight.
The iPad has some heft to it. It's far lighter than my MacBook Pro, and I'd much rather carry this thing back and forth to work, but I can see it getting uncomfortable when devouring a book over several hours.
As far as the gaming table goes, I'd love to see everyone's computers replaced with tablet computers. Their footprint is significantly smaller than a laptop, and they're much easier to move. I also found it less distracting, mostly because there wasn't this huge hulking machine taking up space next to me. As a GM I'd love to have one to hold my notes, PDFs, etc. -- I can see it making my end of the table much tidier.
Having said all that, I'm not in a hurry to buy the iPad. While I think that direct comparisons to netbooks are unfair and inaccurate -- this device is not meant as a netbook, and serves a different role -- there are aspects of the iPad that I dislike. There's no way to easily get data onto the device in the field because there's no USB port or SD card. There's also no camera, and the two combined means that there's no way to use it to create and then post to the Web.
Of course, both would take the device outside of the strictly consumption role Apple has assigned to the device, but I think they're wrong. I don't want to use the tablet as a full-blown computer, but just like an iPhone, I want the ability to create and post as needed. If I’m at a convention or a conference, I want to be able to tweet, blog, and post multimedia, and I’d rather not have to bring a netbook and an ipad to do it.
There’s been much debate in the geek community about the closed nature of the iPad; I find much of it overblown. I view the iPad as an appliance, and as an appliance, my primary concern is that it just works. I spend enough time at work debugging code and working through arcane server configuration issues, I don’t need to do that with my tablet as well. It’s the same way I feel about my Xbox 360 – I just want it to work, I don’t want to have to download new graphic drivers, tweak conf files and troubleshoot soundcards just to play a game; I just want it to work.
Is it possible to have a more open market environment and still have things work well? Sure, but while I want to check out the HP Slate, I’m skeptical that Windows 7 will be as slick and intuitive as the iPad, and I’m not convinced that the ability to run Flash on the thing will do any favors for its performance and battery life.
Ultimately the single best thing about the iPad is that it’s forcing the evolution of the tablet form factor. As someone on Twitter pointed out, Windows and its PC partners had seven years to get the tablet form factor right and didn’t. I think the reason why is that they were trying to put too much PC functionality into something that fundamentally isn’t a PC. The stylus, the foldout keyboards, these were all interfaces that got in the way of using the device. The iPad changes that, making the device the primary mechanism for interfacing with the device. While Apple may have gone too far in the opposite direction (lack of inputs, walled garden app shop), I think the real value in what they’ve done is show people how to make a tablet that you actually want to use.