In the midst of all the hype of a typical Apple new product launch, it's easy to forget two things. The first is that the iPad isn't the first tablet PC, it isn't even Apple's first attempt. Does anybody remember the Newton, launched in 1993? The second is that a raft of other vendors - such as Lenovo, HP and Asus - provide similar tablets with similar functionality. This clearly isn't a new market sector but what reinvigourates it is Apple's ecosystem of apps ready to make the iPad experience, even on the basic 16GB Wi-Fi enabled model, worthwhile.
Accordingly, some analysts are bullish that the iPad will lift the tablet sector as a whole. ABI Research reckons the product represents the real start of a new market for media tablets. It expects to see 4 million units - not exclusively Apple products - shipped this year, rising to shipment of around 57 million each year by 2015.
However, ABI doesn't see emerging markets as a fertile area for these devices. "A tablet will not replace a laptop, netbook or mobile phone, but will remain an additional premium or luxury product for wealthy industrialised markets for at least several years," said the firm's senior analyst Jeff Orr.
Orr's view has been echoed by Julien Blin, principal analyst and chief executive at JBB Research, who expects the iPad to have 'zero impact' in emerging markets such as Africa, South America and parts of Asia including China. Blin says pricing - the iPad will start at US$499 rising to US$829 for the 64GB, 3G-enabled version - is an obvious issue in these developing markets but, of wider concern is the absence of means to effectively administer content and uphold copyright laws. "If content carried through the iPad gets into a country like Nigeria, it would be hard for the content industry to enforce such a law and penalise the end user," he said. "Plus, how would it be possible to force consumers to pay if there is no law in the first place, but most importantly no robust payment systems?"
That said, Jonathan Gosier, a Uganda-based blogger, has commented that the basic iPad, priced at little more than twice that of the One Laptop Per Child's XO-1 and equal in price to netbooks, is an entry level option that certainly undercuts fully-fledged laptops. "Even if a base price of US$500 is marked up to US$800 in a country like this, it's still US$200 dollars less than the last Acer or Dell laptop I purchased here," he said.
I'm not sure the iPad should be looked at in this way. Apple is trying to position it as distinct from laptops and netbooks and Apple chief executive Steve Jobs made derisory comments about netbooks at the iPad launch saying 'the problem is netbooks aren't better than anything.' That being the case, it needs to be established what the iPad is better at. Entertainment and apps seem to be the answer but that potentially limits the product to an audience looking upon it as a means to bridge the gap between a smartphone and a PC. That today confines it to a luxury-oriented, developed market in my opinion. In developing markets, products such as HP's touch-enabled Mini 5102 would probably make more sense since they offer greater computing functionality. Significantly, the iPad doesn't offer front-facing cameras, thereby precluding video conferencing. It also doesn't offer storage interfaces or support for Flash.
Viewed as an entertainment device for use in the living room it makes sense but seems to me to be aimed at a market looking for an additional device rather than as an only device. That precludes vast swathes of the world's population from finding it relevant. Its success will be dependent on its value as an entertainment device and Apple has the relationships and apps in place to support that aim.
In research into the iPad's market impact, analyst firm Gartner forecast worldwide tablet sales of 10.5 million by the end of 2010, predicting it would be the best-selling tablet yet. Gartner noted that, as a versatile media-consumption device, the iPad will compete with netbooks for light use at home or on the go.
Content will be at the core of the new device's success. The device will run all of the 140,000 apps in the App Store, and Apple has released a new development kit, so applications can be specifically designed to leverage the iPad's capabilities.
That's borne out by Rupert Murdoch's recent announcement that; "Content is not just king. It is the emperor of all things electronic ... the debate over the primacy of content is over." To that end, Murdoch, a critic of dumb e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle device, also announced a favourable deal between News Corp and Apple which he said would allow for higher prices for ebooks than the US$9.99 Amazon charges for best-sellers and hard cover releases.
The question, for me, remains whether a hybrid device aimed at the living rooms of the developed world, can in future make a case for itself in the less well-networked markets of the developing world that don't have the content delivery and administration infrastructure in place. If it's all about content and Apple continues to claim no interest in using the iPad to compete with netbooks and cheap PCs, it's hard to see a relevant market for the iPad among the vast majority of the world's population.