I was reading an article in Forbes about 3 questions related to portable devices (Three Questions for Steve Jobs). The author poses 3 questions that he believes people ask themselves when deciding on a portable device (phone, netbook, laptop). The questions are quite good. To summarize the questions: how much conscious effort is made deciding to take the device with you, how long does it take to turn on, and how do you tell it what to do. The author then goes on to apply these questions to the iPad, with conclusion that the iPad does not come out ahead. The author’s assertion is that the iPad loses on question 1 because it has less storage and only runs one program at a time, and fails on the 3rd question because it doesn’t have a keyboard. To quote the author: “Writers tend to be exceptionally old-fashioned about this, but unless something is going to fit in my pocket, there is no excuse for it not to have a physical keyboard.” The one area the iPad excels at is the instant-on nature of startup.
I don’t believe the author in this case made their argument, because there are good counter-arguments to the “fails”. The first “loss” is that the iPad, being less capable, it is less likely to be carried around. First, the issue of capability of the device isn’t part of the question. The question isn’t about storage or the ability to run more than 1 thing at time. The question is how much mental effort does someone exert in deciding to bring the device with them or not. It is true the iPad (and the iPhone and iPod Touch) only allow 1 program at a time. This is a restriction that I wish Apple would remove (since it is a multitasking OS under the covers, this restriction is artificial, not technical). However, most of the people I know how use netbooks who are more mainstream/casual users don’t run more than one program on their netbook anyways. While one-at-a-time is a bit annoying at times, most of the time I hardly notice it on my iPhone.
Back to the real question: mental effort and conscious thought in deciding to take it with you. Here, I would say the iPad is a wash at best, or a slight win. The decision to bring it with your or not isn’t any more difficult than a netbook. I believe that the question will come down to how a person thinks they will use the device. If I expect to be disconnected for a while, the iPad’s superior battery life means I don’t also need to drag the charger along. If I expect to be in areas with limited space or standing up (like on a train or bus), then the iPad wins because I can hold it with one hand, and the interaction is simple (poke at things on the screen). A netbook is awkward to use while standing, and works best if you are sitting or if you have a table/desk in front of you. If I expect to be reading or watching video, the iPad generally wins because I can hold it in a more book-like fashion. There are times, though, where the clamshell design of the netbook will win out. Overall, I would call this a tie.
The other question is the keyboard. The paraphrase the author, “writers” expect it to have a physical keyboard. No serious writer would use a netbook for writing anymore than they will use the iPad. The keyboard on a netbook is adequate for typing URLs, filling in forms and composing short e-mails. If you expect to do much more than that, a netbook keyboard won’t cut it. Again, I would call this one a wash, since the soft keyboard on the iPad will (like the iPhone) be adequate for the limited amount of typing expected on such a device, but you wouldn’t use it for any type of serious composition work. The keyboard, though, is only one element of “telling it what to do”. When I use my iPhone, I do not use the keyboard all that often. Most of the time I spend poking at controls with my finger. No mouse, no trackpad, no pointing stick. See it, touch it. It’s fast, simple and relatively error free. Because of its size, the iPad still requires the use of two hands (one to hold, one to poke and swipe), so I would call this a tie.
I would say that, using these questions, the iPad becomes another viable alternative for the vast majority of netbook users out there. It has some benefits, it does have some drawbacks, but for most people it will be just as good as netbook, functionally. I think where the iPad excels is that it is simple to use, and offers the kinds of features that matters is casual portability: video, music, games, books and internet access. Games on a netbook are not great, video is okay, and music will be about the same. Its the form-factor, the ecosystem the iPad lives in, and the general experience is where I see the iPad being superior.