Will the iPad become the latest must-have device?

APPLE’S product launches are legendary, but the hype that surrounded the unveiling of its iPad yesterday was without precedent. At first glance, the device looks like an iPhone on steroids. Its ambitions are even bigger: it is supposed to revolutionise the way we surf the internet, watch television and movies, and read books and newspapers.

Sporting a stunning 9.7inch full-colour touch screen, the iPad is what Apple boss Steve Jobs calls a “third category device” – not a phone, nor a laptop, but something altogether different. Apple is one of the few companies that can reinvent the wheel like this; its chief designer Jonathan Ive is proud of giving consumers something they don’t know they want. Take the first iPod: few customers at the turn of the 21st Century were crying out for a small slab of metal that would hold their entire music collection.

The biggest surprise was the price. Analysts had been expecting a starting price tag around the $700-mark, but the base iPad – with WiFi and a 16GB memory – is $499. The top end model, which has 3G internet access and a 64GB memory, costs $829. Analyst estimates put first year sales at between 3m and 5m, but with an attractive entry price, the device could reach the top end of that.

Much of the hype that surrounded the launch is down to the mainstream, traditional media. Paid-for newspapers, magazines and book publishers are desperate for any sign that their industry isn’t in the final stages of a terminal decline. Cue the executives from Condé Nast, HarperCollins and the New York Times, who are all striking content deals with Apple. They are hoping they can ride on the coattails of its success.

There is much about the iPad that leaves me uneasy, however. It won’t be as good for reading books as the Amazon Kindle, which has an e-ink screen that eliminates glare. The memory is too small; the base model will hold just eleven movies. It is neither fish nor fowl – small enough to take on every journey, but too basic to rely on for a week away. And Apple is pinning future revenues on content deals with firms that have an uncertain future.

Above all, Apple has set the bar extraordinarily high by stoking the hype. Increasingly, Steve Jobs strikes me as the Barack Obama of consumer electronics: a man who promises so much but, in doing so, comes dangerously close to failing to deliver.