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The New iPad May Be a Snooze, But It's Showing the Way to Free-Range Computing

Apple's latest gadget show-and-tell was a bit of a flop, but it's bringing us a new kind of personal computing.

Maybe Apple should host its big press confabs a little less frequently. Fanboys aside, most of us don’t need to know much about the new iPad that Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled yesterday—other than a nicer display, it's not that much different than the last one. Tellingly, the biggest controversy arising from the roadshow wasn’t any of the device’s features but its moniker—it’s just "the new iPad," not the expected iPad HD or iPad3. Stop the presses!

On the other hand, Cook’s attempt to offer up a compelling vision of our electronic future—the kind of magic that his predecessor, the late Steve Jobs, used to produce on occasions like these—is notable. As Cook described it, Apple is poised to dominate our “post-PC future” with a bevvy of devices, like the iPad and the iPhone, that aren’t tethered to any physical location and access applications and data from the cloud.

If at this point you’re moved to interrupt and note that "PC" means personal computer, and ask what could be a more personal computer than Apple’s totable gadgets, I share your sentiments, and so does Cook. Heck, the current iPad 2 has a faster processor and more memory than the company’s iMac personal computers had when they came out in 1998.

Cook argues that the days of the desktop-laptop continuum are coming to an end. The truly personal computers built by his and other companies combined with the internet-driven trend toward distributed storage that we’re calling “the cloud” mean we don’t need to be tethered to any single place or device anymore, and touchscreens are making mice and, increasingly, keyboards, obsolete. Computing is about to get a lot more free-range, basically.

You can see that trend in the data Cook cited: In the last quarter of 2011, the company sold 15.4 million iPads. That’s more than the number of computers sold by HP (15.1 million), Lenovo (13 million) or Dell (11.9 million) sold in the same period. In 2011, 76 percent of Apple’s revenue came from its “post-PC” devices, with it’s traditional computer offerings making up the remainder.

A future that’s not dependent on any single device but a bevvy of interchangeable platforms is one that benefits Apple’s upgrade-demanding, almost disposable model of electronics distribution. Microsoft, which made its name with the PC, may find itself even further behind—unless the promise of its new, multi-platform Windows 8 operating system pans out.

One major test of whether this model of computer use will come to dominate our world will happen when big corporations start adopting iPads and similar technology the same way they do laptops and cellphones; but if the President of the United States is already using an iPad to organize his daily national security briefing, you can figure that business will find a way to put these devices to use.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Yutaka Tsutano

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