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Apple turns the medium into the message

by Kazuaki Nagata

Amid the media hype over the iPad’s potential to transform Japan’s conservative publishing industry, experts say the tablet computer’s potential is even broader: The gadget might change the way people view videos, play video games and music, or even how they get an education.

“It’s true that making a business model with the e-book is Apple’s main aim, but when thinking about the (multimedia) potential of the iPad and its available services, we think that the device is something like a large version of the iPhone or the iPod (rather than being simply an e-book reader),” said Kanae Maita, chief analyst at Tokyo-based IT advisory firm Gartner Japan Ltd.

In addition to hundreds of thousands of applications already available for the iPhone, millions of songs and video images already available for the iPhone and iPod can be also run on the iPad.

With the touch of a finger, iPad users can also access TV programs, newspapers and e-books thanks to its 9.7-inch screen — which is larger than the iPhone’s and of better quality than the screens on netbooks, according to Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

When he unveiled the iPad on Jan. 27, Jobs said the device falls somewhere between a laptop and a smart phone because with it the user can browse the Web, send and receive e-mail, photos and video and use it as an e-book.

Jobs demonstrated the iPad’s high-definition display by accessing a video on YouTube.

“I can even go full screen here,” he said, rotating the device to the horizontal position.

“That’s off of YouTube. Isn’t that incredible?” Jobs said.

During the presentation, Jobs showed off the device’s multimedia potential with demonstrations of Google Maps, schedule management, Web-browsing and movie clips.

“I think the iPad is designed for personal entertainment, while netbooks are more for business,” said Tsuruaki Yukawa, who runs Tech Wave, a Web site that posts IT and media-related blogs.

Computer game developers would agree.

According to U.S.-based Flurry Analytics, a mobile market researcher, the iPhone accounted for 19 percent of the revenue of the U.S. mobile video game software market in 2009. In comparison, Sony Corp.’s PlayStation Portable accounted for just 11 percent.

Flurry Analytics also found that 44 percent of new applications being tested on the iPad are video games.

Some video game companies are already preparing more elaborate games to take advantage of the iPad’s bigger display.

Yukawa added that Apple seems to be attempting to create a new type of medium for people to access music, TV, video, movies and books.

“Literally, all the media contents are there and can be casually used,” he said.

The first users, however, may be limited to digital gadget lovers until enough software titles are available specifically for the iPad, industry sources said.

As for its e-book function, many in the industry say it is unlikely to catch on in Japan, where most readers use their cell phones. Because of their portability, it is doubtful the 9.7-inch tablet device will replace cell phones, some experts said.

Yukawa said the iPad may not reach a wide audience initially, but when the number of iPad-only applications increases, that could attract more users, just as Apple’s popular iPhone handset did.

“When the iPhone debuted (in Japan), there wasn’t really anything impressive about its specs. Japanese cell phones were better in every way. But it has a system where new applications can be added . . . and when content increased tremendously it became an attractive device for consumers,” Yukawa said.

Some ordinary users in Japan, as Yukawa pointed out, do not sound so excited at the moment although they expect that may change as software titles are added.

A 24-year-old man holding an iPhone on the street in Tokyo’s Akihabara district said that while he thinks the iPad is an interesting device, he will not buy it right after it debuts, but instead wait and see what others think of it.

“I think it’s not the hardware of the iPad that will attract people. It will be the software,” he said, noting the thousands of applications already developed for the iPhone will also run on the iPad.

The man, who declined to give his name and works for an IT-related firm, added he is more comfortable using a keyboard to do some tasks on a computer.

Katsuhiko Tabata, who was leaving the Apple Store in Tokyo’s Ginza district on Tuesday, agreed.

“I am not planning to buy it for now. I’d like to see how it will be accepted,” the fortysomething from Mie Prefecture said, adding he is satisfied with his iPhone for now.

But over the long run, the iPad and its applications have great potential and may generate needs that no one has thought of, industry observers say.

For instance, Maita of Gartner pointed to its possible use as an educational tool for children, who can take advantage of its touch screen.

She also said the iPad might win the hearts of people who are unfamiliar with computers.

“There are many Japanese who are not comfortable with keyboards because they didn’t learn to type as children,” said Maita.

The iPad could one day prove useful for paying bills and handling tax documents, she said.

Considering Apple’s history, Maita said it is hard to imagine the company would simply be focusing on the e-book market with the iPad.

“I think Apple has the ability to cultivate new needs,” she said.