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Apple iPad doesn't fall far enough from tree

The new tablet computer was launched to a worldwide fanfare last month, but bullish estimates of a 200-million plus market might be wildly over-optimistic.

When Steve Jobs unveiled Apple's new iPad tablet computer, he posed an interesting question: "Everyone uses a laptop and/or a smartphone. And the question that has arisen lately is, 'is there room for a third category of device in the middle - somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone?'".

Now that the iPad has begun shipping in the US, and a few examples are finding their way to the UAE, he is about to find the answer to his question. It may be one he will not wish to hear. Some industry sources are already pouring cold water on the more bullish predictions for iPad's success. Citigroup predicted the market volume for tablet computers such as the iPad could ultimately even rival that of mobile phones and that the worldwide market for the new devices would top 200 million in 2015.

To put this figure in context, Intel estimates total worldwide sales of netbooks, the new generation of low-cost ultra-portable laptops, to be only 45 million so far. Intel does not believe that there is enough evidence to support claims that the iPad and its tablet PC rivals will start to outsell more traditional forms in the foreseeable future. "It is really difficult to tell what the adoption rate for these devices will be," says Johann Weber, a spokesman for Intel. "Citigroup has predicted sales of 70 million within three years while IDC forecasts only 1.8 million."

Mr Weber thinks that, in order to achieve the high-end predictions of the bullish analysts, the iPad would have to enable users to do something they cannot already do with existing devices; what the IT industry calls "a killer app". So far, the iPad's lack of "a killer app" is its Achilles heel. Apple's iPod range of music players, for example, allow users to carry an entire music collection in their pocket and listen to it wherever and whenever they wish. As a result of this "killer app", Intel estimates a total of 250 million iPods have been sold throughout its nine-year history.

But at the iPad launch, even Mr Jobs was hard put to show the waiting world anything new. He illustrated how the iPad could be used to watch videos, listen to music, read e-books, organise photographs, receive e-mails and play games. All of these applications can be performed on other devices and the iPad would hardly be first choice for some of them. Serious PC gamers would be unlikely to trade in their top-end PCs for a less powerful device running a limited range of games. Apple's own laptops already allow users not only to watch videos and organise photos, but also offer high-end editing suites, as do their Windows rivals.

And while it is possible to listen to music on an iPad or access e-mail, it would not be a first choice for many users because of its size. With its 9.7-inch screen, it is far larger than any mobile phone or MP3 player and would not fit into a pocket. Another shortcoming is the list of functions it cannot perform that are available on smaller devices such as Apple's own pocket-sized iPhone. Unlike the iPhone, the iPad has neither a phone nor a camera, despite is size.

Unless the user is prepared to pay a monthly fee to a selected telecommunications operator for 3G access, the iPad connects to the internet through wi-fi. And there have been growing reports that the launch iPads have wi-fi connectivity problems. After hundreds of complaints from early adopters about weak signals, Apple was forced to admit that "under certain conditions iPad may not automatically rejoin a known wi-fi network".

Neither does the iPad compare well with a laptop. The advantage of its relatively light weight, 680 grams, is offset not only by the fragility of its constantly exposed screen but also by the lack of a keyboard. Although the iPad has a "virtual" keyboard that appears on the screen, this is no match for a real keyboard when writing more than a few dozen words or performing any relatively complex work or study-related task.

The only area in which the iPad does offer something new is as a high-end colour e-reader and Apple has already struck a number of media deals, such as that with Time magazine, which offers iPad owners a digital version of its magazine for $4.99 an issue. But the publishing industry is still undecided as to what extent e-book readers really will want new hybrid media forms when all the extra features come at the expense of battery life. Amazon's Kindle e-reader, for example, runs for about a week between charges. The iPad lasts only about 10 hours.

"The industry needs a better understanding of what the consumer wants," says Stephanie Duncan, the digital director of London-based book publisher Bloomsbury, which launched the Harry Potter series of children's books. "Is it, for instance, backlit pages with full colour and video, or easier to read electronic ink and a longer battery life? An immersive reading experience or added extras? The functionality the iPad brings is more relevant for some books than for others."

Without a "killer app" of its own, the iPad is likely to have limited appeal. It is hard to see how an iPad could replace a laptop for business users or students and few laptop users are likely to wish to carry a third device in addition to their phone. But those wanting to travel light will continue to opt for an iPhone or a Windows smartphone. Despite all the hype surrounding its launch, the iPad's closest antecedent may not be the Apple iPod but the Apple Newton, named after the famous British 17th century physicist said to have come up with the theory of gravity after watching an apple fall from a tree.

Like the iPad, the now-forgotten Newton, discontinued in 1998, had a portable tablet format designed to revolutionise personal computing. business@thenational.ae

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