The Latest iMagic Act


I lack the gene that makes people delirious with wonder about What Apple Will Do Next.

On Wednesday, the latest offering from the Cupertino magic factory was revealed: the iPad, which is either an overgrown iPod touch or a dumbed-down notebook.

The Apple marketing geniuses are calling it, no joke, a “Magical & Revolutionary Device at an Unbelievable Price.” Starts at $500, and runs up to $829 for the AT&T 3G version not including the $30 per month fee — oh, they meant unbelievable in a good way.

Magic? No. It’s a portable e-reader/media player/Internet device, not a cloak of invisibility. It doesn’t have an external keyboard (Apple will sell one separately with a docking stand). And because it runs the iPhone operating system, not Mac OS, it has some big limitations including that it doesn’t support Adobe Flash: bummer for you, Hulu fans.

In the fizzy pre-launch speculation, the iPad was imagined as a way to either save newspapers (it’s got a big, beautiful screen! people will realize they want to pay for this stuff now!) or shake up the TV industry (programmers and studios will be forced to bow before Steve Jobs, as the music industry did).

I’m doubtful this device will do either. Remember the Apple TV set-top? That was going to revolutionize TV. After three years, it’s watching from the sidelines. Perhaps the iPad will give Amazon’s Kindle a run for its money, or carve out share in the netbook category. But it strikes me as less of a mainstream device than, say, the iPod.

The media hype for the tablet was beyond ridiculous, even for Apple. On Wednesday, before the company had announced anything, Google News returned 2,662 stories in the past day on the search terms “Apple tablet.” And four of the top 10 Twitter trending topics in the morning leading up to Apple’s announcement were “Apple Tablet,” “#Apple,” “iSlate,” and “iTablet,” the latter two referring to names that had been speculated for the new device. (Both, it turns out, better than iPad, which was ruthlessly mocked in this MadTV skit… from 2006.)

Here’s what I really don’t understand, though: When Apple ties the content to the hardware à la iTunes or the App Store — or the forthcoming iBookstore — the company is hailed as a business innovator. Genius! When cable operators do the same thing (deliver TV programming to set-top boxes) consumer advocates accuse them of being anticompetitive and anticonsumer.

But see, I’ve already forgotten: One is “magical,” and the others are not.