iPad is to iPhone as Window is to Keyhole

Pacing quickly through Austin’s Barton Creek Mall last Saturday morning, a friend and I arrived just in time. We heard loud cheers as we approached the Apple store. It was 9 am. The doors had just opened.

The early crowd had been divided into two lines. One was for people who had reserved a new iPad. The other was for those who hadn’t reserved one, but hoped to buy if enough were in stock.

When my turn came, an Apple store staffer ushered me to the accessories wall, then to the pick-up table and then to a table where another staffer was ready to help with the basics. I left minutes later with my 32 gig ($599) iPad safely wrapped in its new case ($39), through a gauntlet of cheers and high-fives.

Since then, some media reporting has had a slightly disappointed tone, noting the lack of riots, tragic shortages or bizarre trampling deaths. Some are not surprised, noting the “high” price of the iPad. Others sniff, “Why bother, when I can do it all with my iPhone?”

Even so, Apple reports the sale of some 300,000 units that first day. Apple’s share price has hit new records. Reading opinions of the iPad on forums I am struck by how many are watching the hood of the car, picking nits. A glance in the rear view mirror and a few hours of use gives me a very different view— the future belongs to Apple. The iPad is the next step in communicating, learning, and computing. Having given us a peek at the universe through the keyhole offered by the iPhone, Apple now offers a lovely window.

From the rear view mirror.  Fifty years ago the basic portable communications device was an Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter. I had one for writing college papers. It weighed over 8 pounds and put ink on paper for distribution by foot or snail mail. It was replaced by the Lettera 32 now in my garage. I wrote my first two books on that machine. I dreamed of someday having a better way. The Lettera cost about a week of salary for a new college graduate.

My first computer, purchased in 1980, was a Zenith Z89 with 64 kilobytes of memory. Lifting it could give you a hernia. The internet was for academics. Communication speed was turtle slow.

A few years later Radio Shack introduced the TRS-80 Model 100. It was light weight and portable. Reporters could write in a tiny window and modem their copy to waiting editors. It was priced at $1,099.  For most reporters that was way over a week of salary. Adjusted for inflation, it would be about $2,392 today.

The modern age of computers and communication didn’t begin until the widespread use of hypertext markup language (HTML) after 1995. But today, a new college graduate can buy the basic iPad for about half a week of starting salary. Even the most expensive iPad will be less than a week of salary. That investment offers access to the entire world. The knowledge power wrapped up in this 24 ounce package is absolutely stunning.

From a few days of use. Minutes after returning home I had the iPad signed on to googlemail and had sent the first email. After that I transferred photos, contacts, calendar and music. I checked out the first free iBook (a nicely illustrated copy of Winnie the Pooh) and downloaded the Kindle app for Amazon eBooks. Then I downloaded the Netflix app, registered, and watched part of a movie. (Expect this to grow, big time.) Still hoping to achieve omniscience, I also downloaded the Wolfram Alpha app. Then I downloaded the Skype app and called one of my brothers.

Looking at the future. Will the iPad kill the Kindle and the Nook? No, but that’s the wrong question. Some people will be able to enjoy reading on the iPad. Others will find long periods of back-lit reading uncomfortable. But the digital future is here and, as always, it is just beginning.

(Full disclosure: Nearly 90 percent of my financial assets are in index funds, but I own shares in about a dozen stocks. One of them is AAPL. No individual stock accounts for more than 1 percent of household financial assets.)