Opinion As the UK braces itself for tomorrow's iPad launch, one might wonder what the device is good for beyond providing entertainment during today's lacklustre TV shows.
This evening the queues will start forming as fans chomp at the bit for the latest Apple bling. Tomorrow's news will no doubt be full of happy Apple customers being high-five'd by strung-out staff who've been up all night preparing the store. But once the buyers get their iPads home what will they be doing with them, and would the alternative have been cheaper and more useful?
The IRex DR1000S might not be the most-quoted comparative device, but it should be - it's 100 grams lighter than an iPad, but roughly the same size with a comparable screen (by size) and battery life. The DR1000S is a killer device for reading and marking up long documents, but the e-ink screen makes it almost useless for anything else, and given that it costs the same as a 64GB iPad there seems little reason not to adopt Apple's technology for that particular application.
But the market for reading-and-marking-up-long-documents is something of a niche, as demonstrated by the vendor's "temporarily unavailable" listing for the DR1000S - so what about the iPad as an e-book reader?
Magazines are certainly going overboard to pack their iPad versions with additional content; the first issue of Wired weighs in at 500MB complete with video and interactive advertising, making it more of a coffee-table book than a magazine. For reading books a device should have a battery life measured in weeks, and the lazy user should be able to turn pages one-handed too, so for books (as opposed to newspapers and magazines) a dedicated reader is the option of choice.
But what about a laptop replacement? The iPad will talk to a Bluetooth keyboard, and if you're prepared to jailbreak it then you can use a mouse too, so unless you've got a application-specific need then the iPad might work well. As long as your work doesn't involve PowerPoint at all.
The iPad can connect to a VGA monitor, but not to display slides from Keynote, or web pages, or anything like that. If your presentation consists of YouTube clips or iTunes-purchased films then you're OK, but the rest of us will have to carry a laptop too.
But perhaps you don't need to do presentations; you just want to be able to work on a few documents, and deal with email on the move, using a Bluetooth keyboard and in-built connectivity. Well, you could do all that on a mobile phone; depending on the documents you might not even need a smartphone, you might even be able to print those documents out too - which is pretty exciting.
So what is the iPad for? Talking to a few people who've been using them for a week or two the killer application, beyond any other, is web surfing while watching TV. Sadly it seems that the quality of our television is now so low that without additional entertainment viewers just become bored.
Not that viewers have ever focused much on the TV anyway. A famous study back in the 80s used set-top cameras to show "viewers" doing everything from rearranging furniture to practising the recorder, while "watching" the TV. These days many a living room has sprouted laptop computers, complete with trailing wires for power, allowing the residents to "multitask" - or "do two things, each in a half-arsed way" as it's more commonly known. Advertisers, in particular, hate it when we take our eyes off the screen, and Apple has (rather cleverly) managed to grab that wandering eyeball-time for itself.
All that is aided by programming that restates itself every couple of minutes, for those whose vital tweet caused them to miss the key dialogue. Documentaries constantly reiterate and summarise, dramas labour the same points to exhaustion and even films can't be certain you're paying attention these days. TV dumbs down not because we're less clever, but because we're all too busy updating our Facebook pages and tweeting our innermost thoughts to pay attention to the TV.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing - slack-jawed immersion into the TV is nothing to be admired. But it does provide the killer app for the iPad, and the one for which every iPad user we've spoken to agrees the iPad is perfectly designed.
So if you don't find TV distracting enough, and the lack of Farmville doesn't bother you, then get out there and join the queues.
If, however, you quite like buying imaginary cows and planting non-existent fields then you're better off waiting a month or two for the competition to catch up, and if you still find TV compelling enough to watch on its own then the iPad probably isn't the tool for you. ®