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So is the Mac at Death’s Door?

When I suggested recently that we had returned to the silly season, perhaps a little earlier than I might have expected, I didn’t know how right I was. A recent article, from a site that I won’t name, is now suggesting that the iPad is the first nail in the Mac’s coffin, that it won’t be long before only the Mac Pro remains in the lineup. We’ll all be using iPads real soon now, at least according to what’s being implied in that article.

Now there is some reason to believe that a portion of traditional Mac users might decide the iPad is all they need. That, of course, holds true for tens of millions of current Windows users, particularly those who have embraced those cheap netbooks.

The real issue, however, is what purpose the iPad serves in the real world. Yes, Apple will offer a single productivity suite, an iPad version of the various iWork apps, sold separately for $9.99 each. However, that is but one example, and unless or until there are loads of such products available, the iPad is destined to be largely a consumption device.

So, for example, you’ll be able to read books, magazines and newspapers on it. Students will be able to ditch their textbook-laden backpacks and carry the entire semester’s literature in a tiny case. Yes, they’ll be able to do their homework on the iPad as well, but they may choose to just keep the iPad on hand as the electronic reference book and do the rest of the work on their regular Mac and Windows computers. The fly in the ointment is, of course, the lack of a suitable printer feature. Right now, all you have are those apps that require a regular computer to do the heavy lifting over your Wi-Fi network. Of course, this doesn’t stop the student from just emailing their homework assignments. It would sure reduce the paper explosion.

For the rest of us, the iPad will also be used for music and video, and to surf the Internet and play games. Yes, you’ll be able to handle your email in, one hopes, a far more agreeable fashion than on the iPhone, but I still don’t see writing long messages on one, unless you hook your iPad up to the docking station and use a standard keyboard. Suddenly you have what is largely a tiny desktop personal computer.

Now it’s quite true that netbooks are heavily oriented towards simple computing tasks, and many Mac and PC users don’t perform work that extends beyond what the iPad can handle quite easily. This being the case, I expect there is apt to be some cannibalization from low-end note-books to the iPad, a trend that will increase as the product matures.

In the next few years, there may even come a time where the home PC is largely supplanted by the iPad and its competitors. But those who require a computer at work — and that’s most of you I’m sure — aren’t going to suddenly find an iPad on your desk replacing whatever you used before. That may come in time, but not immediately.

Over the long haul, yes, I don’t dispute the possibility that the iPad is, for most of us, the personal computer of the future, but a lot of that depends on whether it truly succeeds and how well it handles your workflow compared to existing tools. In that sense, perhaps the iPad is a modern-day equivalent to the original compact Mac from 1984. Up till then, real computers used text-based operating systems, and the Mac and its trend-setting graphical user interface was more a promise than a realization. Industries developed around it, largely desktop publishing and music, before the “computer for the rest of us” became more than a cute curiosity.

Of course the iPad is a far more developed concept. It begins with that huge repository of apps developed for the iPhone and the iPod touch, most of which will run unaltered. Over time, developers will begin to build “universal” versions, with screen sizes and feature sets optimized for the iPad. If Apple’s own iWork suite is successful, you’ll see more work-related products destined for the iPad. In the end, it’s a blackboard, and users will have to pick up their pieces of chalk to fill things in and take it where it’s destined to go.

Sure, I realize Apple has their own concept of the potential of such a device. Getting it right, rather than repeating the errors of the past, is likely why the iPad’s rumored gestation period was so long. Even now, we’re talking of a version 1.0 product that may undergo loads of changes before the product category it creates is readily apparent to most of us. Apple may know already, but I expect they’ll still be surprised, just as they were surprised and overwhelmed by the huge success of the App Store.

Now if you ask me in 2015 about the iPad versus a regular Mac, I will probably have different answers. But that’s then and this is now.