Everybody wants to know what this new Apple iPad means. Is it the salvation of the media? The end of the personal computer? Is it merely the most uncomfortable product name in recent memory?
I'm sympathetic to the head-scratching. If all that hype turned out to mean nothing, we'd be cast into some kind of existential crisis. So I'll tell you what the iPad means.
The iPad means that, within a couple of months, there will be no physical position in which we won't be able piss away time on the Internet.
Let's consider this for a moment.
These are the days of iPad backlash. It's perfectly understandable - before it was unveiled, people were routinely referring to it as the "Jesus tablet." Inevitably, the iPad didn't prove to be as revolutionary as some had hoped. It amounts to an oversized touch-screen iPod, and completely lacks the ability to cure leprosy. (Though I understand someone's working on an app.)
However, its size - and its ability to work really well at that size - is all the innovation it needs. With its 10-inch screen, the iPad will be a window onto the Internet and all its riches, to say nothing of the music, movies and books that Apple would like to sell you. The iPad will be a device for consuming content, consuming lots of it, and consuming it anywhere.
But don't we have this already? It's been pointed out, by pundits and thoughtful observers alike, that the iPad is a middle-child device. It's not small and portable like a smartphone, or big and practical like a notebook. But like caulk, a well-designed tablet will fill up the gaps in daily life where neither antecedent quite fits.
Consider the couch. Laptops are still ungainly things; sharing what you're doing with someone sitting at the other end of the couch becomes a dance of cradling creaking screens, avoiding hot surfaces, and not garotting the cat with the power cord. Smartphones, no matter how shiny, still require people to squint at small print.
A well-implemented tablet, on the other hand, offers screen space enough for two people to watch at once, along with the cordless, throw-it-around form of an iPod. It's simple, it's social, and it cuts down on the tiny real-world annoyances that prevent people from being at home with technology.
The Internet is no longer trapped in a boxy monitor, on a table in the corner of one room in the house
Apple knows this. Clearly, it's pitching the product as an around-the-house convenience. Its centrepiece promotional video for the iPad is full of models on couches, using the thing in increasingly languid states of recline. As hands glide over the iPad's surface, pinching, flicking and dragging, an Apple vice-president in casual wear pops up to share some thoughts: "For the same reasons that it just feels right to hold a book or a magazine in your hands as you read them, it just feels right to hold the Internet in your hands" - and here he pauses, his eyes going a bit googly - "as you surf it."
As a rule, Apple vice-presidents should not gush about getting handsy with the Internet, especially when wearing zip-up sweaters. The man, however, has a point. The Internet is no longer trapped in a boxy monitor, on a table in the corner of one room in the house. In fact, it's not even confined to cyberspace any more. The Internet is becoming palpable.
In the days of desktops, the only way to surf the Web was to stay sitting. But when laptops came about, one could surf while reclining, lounging, stooping, sprawling, loafing, and lying flat on one's back, metabolizing. But this was nothing next to smartphones, which we now use while perambulating, stretching, strolling, sprinting, jumping, shopping, toweling, and, in especially bad cases, reproducing.
And even then, phones and iPods are still small and awkward, so now we have a tablet that's perfect for the couch, and the restaurant table, and the party, and the lecture hall; for reading in the bathroom, for floating in space, and possibly for using in the space-bathroom. Who knows - the future is grand.
I think these will be successful machines, and I want one, irrespective of the fact that I don't need one and can't afford one. (Behold, the magic of Apple.) And yet I watch these devices colonize my waking hours with increasing ambivalence. Embodied in shiny Apple products, and the products of Apple's imitators, the Internet follows us around like a determined terrier, loveable and impossible to put down. There is no escape; only abstinence.
The iPad isn't a gadget: It's the Web incarnate. Toteable, fun and painless, it will be the ultimate tool for scarfing down online content. And it arrives at a time when we're only just starting to have the conversation about whether consuming vast amounts of online content is really any better than consuming vast amounts of television.
The question, in the end, isn't whether you want to spend hundreds of dollars on a new tablet computer. It's about whether you really want the Internet lying around the house like that.