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First Impressions of the New Apple iPad

It’s about the software, stupid. While all sorts of commentators were focusing on how much Apple’s new $499 iPad tablet computer looks like an oversized iPhone, the key to whether it can be the first multi-function tablet to win wide public acceptance probably lies in whether consumers perceive it as a suitable replacement for a laptop in key scenarios. And that, in my view, depends heavily on the software and services that flow through its handsome little body.

I have only spent a short time hands-on with the iPad–too short to fully run it through its paces and formally review it yet. But, after attending the rollout of the new device today, and trying out some of its features for myself, I have some first impressions.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs positioned the iPad as belonging to a new category of device between the smartphone and the laptop (since the netbook, in his view and mine, is really just a small, cheap laptop). But, as the demos unfolded, I kept thinking it was more like a hybrid of the two. 

It uses the iPhone’s basic user interface and physical design. But, taking advantage of a 9.7″ screen and a fast Apple-designed processor, the iPad adds some user interface elements and functionality that aren’t available–or at least typical–on smart phones, but look more like computer software. For instance, its photo program works more like iPhoto on a Mac than the photo app on an iPhone, and it will be available with a touch version of Apple’s iWork productivity suite, which is Apple’s take on Microsoft Office. This is a much more powerful program than the phone-based office suites for the iPhone or BlackBerry, and Apple (AAPL) is only charging $30 for it.

Also, Apple has rewritten most of the core iPhone apps so they look more like, and have more of the features of, Mac or PC programs. But they aren’t mere clones of full computer apps. For instance, many forego standard menus for clever overlays and sidebars that work more naturally with the iPad’s multi-touch interface. Other app developers can do this, too. But, even if they don’t, the company said the iPad will run most of the current 140,000 iPhone apps, either in a small window on the screen, or in a full-screen mode. That’s a huge plus for a new device.

Mr. Jobs said after the onstage program ended that he sees the iPad’s user interface as a fuller expression of the one on the iPhone, which had been limited by screen real estate.

And, although the reported video and music streaming services were nowhere to be seen at this preview, Mr. Jobs did offer a taste of how the iPad could deliver content, beyond simply downloads from the iTunes store. He showed off a new e-book reader app with built-in online book store that, visually at least, blew away the Amazon (AMZN) Kindle, even if it seemed to lack all of the Kindle’s features and may have a smaller catalog. Representatives of the New York Times (NYT) showed an iPad digital version of their newspaper that seemed vastly more usable than the clumsy version now on the Kindle and its ilk.

So, the iPad is more than just a giant iPod Touch or iPhone, even though it looks like one. But the question is, will that be enough to get consumers to shell out for it, and make it part of their daily lives? Or will it be a niche product, like Microsoft’s (MSFT) Tablet PC or Mr. Jobs’ own Apple TV?

On the plus side, the device is handsome, feels comfortable and solid to hold, and has all that beautiful software built in. Oh, and it’s amazingly low-priced for an Apple product, with that modest $499 price tag for a base version with 16 gigabytes of memory and Wi-Fi, but no cell phone data connectivity. (A fully loaded model with 64 gigabytes, Wi-Fi and a no-contract 3G cellular data plan is $829, and there are variations in between.)

It also boasts a decent 10 hours of battery life, and Mr, Jobs told me after the event that, for some functions, like playing video and music, the battery should last even longer. 

But there are minuses. First, since it’s too big to go in a pocket, people might perceive it as just another thing to carry around, despite the fact that it’s only a half inch thick and weighs just 1.5 pounds. It also lacks a common and popular laptop feature–a web cam. So, it can’t be used for video chats or for the creation of web videos.

Steve Jobs behind the iPad's virtual keyboard.

Also, the carrier for the iPad’s 3G plan is the deeply unpopular AT&T–there were groans and boos among Mr. Jobs’ otherwise excited audience when this was announced. AT&T is offering bargain prices for iPad data service compared to what it charges laptop owners. But its network is overwhelmed in many big cities and many iPhone lovers, who are strong candidates to buy an iPad, curse the carrier daily.

Finally, while it’s too early for me to say without lots of testing, the size of the iPad’s virtual keyboard may be a liability. I found it almost too wide for thumb typing, and a colleague who’s a whiz at touch typing and tried it briefly found it awkward to type on. Apple is offering an auxiliary physical keyboard that docks with, and charges, the iPad. But you won’t want to lug that around.

Still, the software looked impressive, and that could help Steve Jobs do the one thing even he has never done in an amazing career: get the public to love not just a better version of an existing type of gadget, but a whole new category of gadget.

iPad Event Slideshow

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Steve Jobs introduces the new iPad.

Steve Jobs introduces the new iPad.

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