Five years ago today, Steve Jobs stood onstage and talked about a new kind of mobile device that would sit somewhere between smartphone and laptop. After a spot-on dismissal of netbooks ("they aren't better at anything"), he showed us Apple's answer: the iPad. Half a decade later, tablets may be well-trodden ground, but there's still no question that the iPad was a breakthrough innovation that changed our world.
It's easy to take that iPad announcement for granted today, in much the same way that we'd take for granted the transition from horse to automobile, or from typewriters to desktop PCs. We now see the multitouch tablet as a natural evolution in the history of computers.
But in early 2010, the iPad was a bold idea – and one that drew its share of skepticism. Some said that an Apple tablet needed to be more than this ("it's just an oversized iPod touch with no USB ports?!"). Others believed there just wasn't room for a 'tweener device between phone and laptop, and that the iPad didn't have enough of a clear-cut purpose. Others still thought it was doomed to fail because its name conjured images of feminine hygiene products.
So much for all that.
Within weeks of its April 2010 launch, it was clear that there was plenty you could do with an iPad, and that it was going to be yet another breakthrough on Jobs' watch (ultimately the last). Millions of customers loved the device's blend of simplicity, versatility and portability. You could surf the web on it one minute, play Plants vs. Zombies on it the next, and then move on to browsing photos or reading a best-seller.
Apple successfully framed its lack of a single purpose as a strength: rather than an aimless 'tweener, the iPad was a "magical" device that could be anything you wanted it to be.
Most of all, the iPad was a smash hit because it forced us to rethink the personal computer. Apple loved to talk about a post-PC era, but if you take the words literally, then the tablet was (and is) the ultimate PC. The iPad was the most personal computer ever made: nearly as powerful as a laptop, only much more portable and infinitely more fun.
It's easy to forget what a novelty this was five years ago. We already had multitouch smartphones (mostly the iPhone, as Android handsets hadn't yet caught on), but most people didn't think of iPhones as computers. Computers were either bulky Windows-running towers or keyboard-laden laptops. The idea that a light and handheld multitouch slate could do many of the things we previously did on PCs – in a more personal way – was an eye-opening revelation.
This idea is what changed the world. And Apple deserves all the credit for seeing it through from seedling to towering oak. The iPad itself was merely the execution of that vision.
Today tablets are everywhere, as well as 2-in-1 hybrids and huge phones that are, in everything but name, small tablets. The iPad (Air 2, that is) is still the best tablet money can buy, but even Apple seems to acknowledge that phablets have moved in on tablets' turf. The latest iPad mini is a mere afterthought, and the company now sells a supersized iPhone of its own.
Tablets are still a big part of our culture, but they've now shifted into cruise control, with owners content to hang onto them for several years without upgrading. Much like the PCs that they (sort of) replaced.
Even if tablets no longer have the buzz factor they once had, today's mobile world wouldn't be possible if we weren't all standing on the shoulders of Apple's "giant iPod touch." Like so many Apple products, the iPad was deceptively simple: only seeming obvious and inevitable after it had caught us all off guard.
The iPad also may have been the final exclamation point on an era when Apple was easily the most exciting and innovative force in tech. Maybe the upcoming Apple Watch will be the best smartwatch around, and perhaps it will be a big commercial success ... but it can't possibly be the groundbreaking innovation that the iPad was. There are already too many smartwatches that are, apart from a slightly different focus, almost the same thing.
Apple didn't invent the tablet either, but when the iPad launched, there was nothing else like it.
Five years ago Apple projected its bold vision onto the blank canvas of the future. In doing so, it helped to shape the present that we're living in today. Just remember that what today seems obvious and inevitable once required an ocean of imagination, courage and conviction.
... and it also didn't hurt that it was slightly better than a netbook.
If you want to take a trip down memory lane, Apple still hosts the original event video in iTunes.
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