I've noticed a number of online comments and reports from people who say they just don't get the iPad and seem disappointed Apple has sold so many. Imagine you are back in 1976 and Apple has just released the Apple II, the first off-the-shelf personal computer you don't have assemble from a kit. Executives at IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation were puzzled what the big deal was. Why would anyone want a computer at home? Especially one that does so little? Yet within less than 15 years, PC software was driving much of the computer industry. Why? People did want affordable personal computers at home, while others recognized the opportunity and wrote gorgeous applications that 10's of millions of users could enjoy.
Back to 2010: Why would anyone want an instant on, easy to use, location aware, Internet capable, easy to carry, mobile computer that does so little?
(1) Because it offers a great user experience that wasn't previously available. The iPad is an ideal size for reading, allows you to keep the Internet within easy reach, and offers thousands of Apps to support whatever interests you have.
(2) The focus of innovation has shifted. Some of the best and most creative new software is being written for the iPad.
When I worked at Digital in the 1980's, we had endless debates about the difference between a Personal Computer and a Workstation. Many at Digital would single out some hardware difference: the larger display, better graphics, built-in networking, or even the price. They were all wrong. The real difference that mattered was the software it ran.
When Steve Balmer says "The operating system is called Windows", I think he's making the same mistake.
Don't get the iPad? Just wait a little, it will get bigger.
Some Common Observations
It doesn't do Adobe Flash
Few mobile computers do because 3 years after the first iPhone, Adobe has yet to deliver a version of Flash that works well on mobile devices. Some technologies that don't translate well to a mobile environment will be left behind.
It doesn't include a phone
Yes, and it doesn't include a $70/month phone bill and 2 year contract. Voice is not the primary App for the iPad, but you can use Skype or other VoIP services if you wish.
It's just a big iPhone
A swimming pool is just a big bathtub, but we use it for different things. The iPad is a comfortable size for reading. The responsive touch interface, clever use of panning+zooming, and focus on one task at a time makes the device almost disappear as you become absorbed in the flow of what you are doing.
The landscape keyboard is good enough for lightweight typing, while adding a Bluetooth keyboard accommodates heavy lifting.
It doesn't include a camera
Yes, it's a v1.0 product that starts at $499.
It doesn't do multitasking
I expect we'll see this when iOS4 comes to the iPad later this year.
It doesn't do handwriting recognition
Yes, but there are plenty of note taking apps that will record and even recognize your scribbles if you want that. Part of what makes the iPad such a joy to use is that Apple did the hard work of thinking about what is essential to a great mobile experience, and what can be left out. Fumbling for a stylus to do pixel perfect input is not fun when you are mobile. I believe this is one of the key insights behind the iPad's successful user interface (time will tell). A lot of people choose not to carry a pen in their pocket everywhere they go.
It doesn't synch wirelessly to the cloud for stand alone operation
Providing a great user experience for system backup and restore, software update, synchronizing multiple devices, and managing large media collections is hard. Apple still sees the Mac (or PC) as the hub of your digital life style. Many professionals (like me) are not ready to trust all their personal data to the cloud. Apple's approach feels safe and inspires confidence. If you've ever upgraded from one iPod to another, you know how easy this is. Over time, I expect we'll see more options that migrate services to the cloud.