jobs_ipadThe iPad is set to finally get into the hands of the public Saturday, April 3, after another 2.5 months of additional waiting and speculating. This after the many months of waiting and speculating that had built up before the official iPad announcement in January…

Predictably orchestrated with Apple’s ingenious Archetype Branding, the secrecy has continued unabated, with iPad app developers with actual units in hand apparently having to guard them in a set-up that sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy spy novel:

Blacked out windows, iPads chained to physical desks, no-one-leaks-nothing (unless we want them to), etc.

Yet the pre-sales that started a few weeks ago have been going briskly, with up to 240,000 devices pre-sold for pick-up at Apple stores come Saturday. The remainder (rumors around supply problems continue, but are they put out there by Apple deliberately?) is held back for live store sales, which Apple needs in order to generate the by now pre-requisite Apple Store “I’m getting my iXYZ” camp-out scenes.

Social proof you couldn’t buy with all of the ad money in the world…

Much of the immediate knee-jerk criticism, which was almost inevitable due to the massive pre-announcement hype, seems to have dissipated. Not too many left in the Beavis-and-Butthead gallery left to snicker…”it’s called iPad…hehe” either (no one ever complained about “notepads” or similar before).

Daniel Lyons of Newsweek, one of the early critics, even had a massive change of heart recently as he explains in the digital pre-release of his upcoming news-stand article “Why the iPad Will Change Everything”:

Jobs calls it “a truly magical and revolutionary device,” and supposedly has told people close to him that the iPad is the most important thing he’s ever done.

Which is why so many of us raced to San Francisco in January to get an up-close view of the miraculous tablet. Yet my first thought, as I watched Jobs run through his demo, was that it seemed like no big deal. It’s a bigger version of the iPod Touch, right? Then I got a chance to use an iPad, and it hit me: I want one. Like the best Apple products, the user interface is so natural it disappears.

Elsewhere, the discussion is raging as to if, and if so how much, the iPad will change the fortunes of the deeply troubled publishing industry, especially for magazines, but for e/Books as well. After all, among many other things, the iPad is being positioned, or at least talked up as, a “Kindle Killer” (referring to Amazon’s efficient, yet somewhat ungainly and black-and-white-only eBook reader device).

The opinions range from “god-sent”, to “it won’t do much”. Scott Rosenberg argues: “For The Media Business, The iPad In 2010 Is The Same As The CD-ROM In 1994“, i.e. a relative dud.

Do I want one?

So, with all of that said, here are some of my own thoughts on use cases for the iPad, and why I’ve come around to wanting one myself before long:

Having recently made a number of trips to my local Fry’s store for sound equipment related purchases, I couldn’t help but look around the laptop and netbook section each time, including both Windows and Mac devices. And what I found is that the iPad makes more and more sense to me as a transitional device.

Netbooks simply appear as clunky little things, even with Windows 7 installed. And the manufacturing is pretty poor on all but the priciest of them, at which point they get near the iPad $499 mark.

Keep in mind that no netbook has 3G connectivity unless you buy one with a carrier contract attached to it. So to compare apples to apples (no pun intended), the price comparison should be with the WiFi only iPad for $499 (the one about to ship, the 3G version will ship a month from now).

Typing on them is OK but far from great. And for slow typists like myself, the iPad may actually become a god-sent, especially if we soon see add-on apps that leverage multi-touch for custom gestures autocomplete, and even possibly handwriting recognition.

A decent sized keyboard can always be added via Bluetooth, or the iPad keyboard dock. Personally, for on the go I would much prefer the idea of using the iPad protective case that doubles as a stand, and then using one of the nice Apple Bluetooth keyboards. The dock just seems fragile somehow, and the docking cradle sticks out enough to make you wonder about damaging it in your backpack.

Which brings me to the second class of devices I was perusing at Fry’s, compact 12-13″ laptops. There are some decent devices available starting at around $500-600.

But here’s the deal: the lower end one’s truly lack in manufacturing quality, such as the otherwise pretty handy HP Pavilion DM3. I really wanted to like it, but especially the silver plastic rim appears rickety, as does the largish black bezel around the slightly oddly-sized screen.

And unlike the iPad, there really is no excuse for the bezel as you’re not meant to hold the screen with your hands. I also briefly looked at Tablet PCs, and none had the kind of responsiveness of the screen that inspired much confidence. Windows 7 STILL doesn’t really seem to be optimized for the tablet form factor.

Now the HP Envy 13″ is a major step up in manufacturing quality, really HP’s first attempt at getting to parity with Apple Macbooks. And they did a really nice job.

It’s just that those start at around $1,500. Which puts them in in a totally different league than even the priciest 3G iPads. Same is true for Apple’s Macbook 13 and Air by the way ($1,200-1,500 and up), which I also looked at.

The thing is, as a long-time Windows user, it feels like the adjustment to the Mac OS idiosyncrasies isn’t worth my effort at this point. And that is where the genius of the iPad comes into play: It’s a totally new class of device, with the multi-touch interface already proven on the iPhone. Not an iPhone user myself (yet), I’ve been playing around with plenty of them from my friends and family.

And it all works well, except that the screen size really wasn’t to my taste for Web surfing, or for entering stuff through the mini on-screen keyboard. Presumably the iPad fixes both issues.

While it likely won’t be used much for writing full-length blog posts, it can definitely serve as a great Web and RSS reader, or to curate web snippets in ways better than can now be done laying on the couch with a 15″ full-size laptop (I am hoping Amplify’s great clipping bookmarklet and similar tools will work in Safari out of the box).

Really if you think about it, despite all of the “Apple Walled Garden” talk, the Safari browser is the application that opens up the iPad to anything on the Internet, including, yes, Gmail and all of the other Google products. No Flash, yes, but I have to admit that I’m with Steve on this one: Flash video tends to slow down even pretty powerful full-sized laptops.

Typing a few words for Search, Facebook, Twitter, it should all work. The more auto-completions, pre-populating boxes, and buttons the better.

And of course all of the apps instantly available through the iPhone app store, plus any newly designed specifically for the iPad, are not to be underestimated. Already TechCrunch is crowing that “Instapaper For The iPad May Be [Its] First Killer App. And It Will Be Universal.” And by all accounts, gaming apps will be big, even though I am personally not particularly interested.

And who knows, with Skype or similar add-ons, even your WiFi-only iPad may soon double up as a phone!? Presumably a Bluetooth headset should do the trick.

By the way, for all those that thought the (current) lack of a camera in the iPad body was a major disappointment, there are of course Bluetooth video cameras available. And it would seem to be only a matter of time until someone comes up with a Video-conferencing dock or cheaper clip-on camera as well.

And of course, Apple may yet ship iPad 2.0 with built-in camera, the software does already have all of the necessary hooks. Speaking of which, wouldn’t it be right in line with Apple’s secrecy and techno triumphalism, if it turned out that your iPad will have a built-in camera on April 3 after all?

OK, maybe that one is too much to hope for.

I for one will be sorely tempted to go for iPad 1.0, even though we pretty much know that 2.0 will be improved, and likely cheaper. I think playing with one from your early adopter friends or at the store will be the deciding factor.

If the thing works well enough even now, and there aren’t any major blow-up stories coming out in the first 1-2 months, just having the first-mover advantage may be worth getting it soon.