Tablet computing has always been a solution in search of a problem. Attempts to mainstream the idea have come out periodically, and before the iPad, they all failed. I would venture that this wasn’t simply because the technology wasn’t yet ready, but because of conceptual objections that also apply to the iPad: namely, there didn’t seem to be a felt gap in the current regime of computer options where the tablet would go. The tablet feels like an impoverished laptop; if you say you can add a keyboard to enhance its input capabilities, it then seems redundant, just another laptop. Adding smartphones to the mix didn’t necessarily solve this problem, I would say — in fact, it arguably made the need for the “less than laptop”-style computer even less acute.
What the iPad adds to this equation is Appleness. It’s an Apple product, so it’s cool and attractive and fun to interact with. People don’t ask why they need it. Instead — and I think we’ve all heard people talking like this — they ask how they can justify buying one. They want it initially because it’s a cool toy, and then they need to come up with “real” uses for it.
And it turns out that those “real” uses really are real! An iPad really is better than a conventional laptop for a lot of things. The touchscreen interface really does make certain types of applications more intuitive to use, and the preexisting, flexible architecture for making “apps” — when combined with the drive to find a reason to get an iPad — allows people to stumble on applications that previously wouldn’t have occurred to them.
Without the cachet of Apple, though, I don’t think a tablet computer would’ve ever taken off, because there was no real felt need for it. Apple supplied an elegantly designed, flexible device, but more importantly, they supplied the objet petit a that prompted people to think about what they might do with such a device.