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With iPad, will size matter?

By Nicholas Deleon, Special to CNN
  • Nicholas Deleon says the Apple iPad released today is like a big iPhone or iPod touch
  • But, he says, people have grown used to smartphone-sized screens and capabilities
  • He asks: Will this be an unwieldy Apple product that people reject?
  • Deleon: It may be a challenge for Apple to convince consumers they need an iPad

Editor's note: Nicholas Deleon is a technology journalist from New York who has written about everything from processors to phones to plastic video game guitars since 2005, starting at Gizmodo, and now at CrunchGear.

New York (CNN) -- We were right all along. It's called the Apple iPad, and it's a smallish, $499 computer (for the entry-level model, that is) that can best be described as a big iPhone or iPod touch.

It will be available in 60 days. Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs made the announcement today in San Francisco, California, an event that had provoked the usual, but always startling, over-the-top anticipation and speculation.

Years from now, maybe people will be asking, "Where were you on January 27, 2010?" in the same way they ask, "Where were you on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 first kissed the surface of the moon?"

Luckily for Apple, the marketing writes itself (and is writing itself right now all over Twitter):

Do everything your iPhone can do, only on a larger screen! Zip through photos of your Caribbean vacation without having to squint! Watch iTunes-purchased movies in your bed before going to sleep!

All fun things, sure. But the big question is: Will size matter?

Ever since the iPhone's launch, in 2007, so many people have gotten used to the idea of doing all of that -- zipping through photos, watching videos, reading the latest blog posts, following the play-by-play of the big game, killing time in the elevator with Tetris clones, to say nothing of tweeting -- on its very small, portable, bite-sized screen. We've adjusted. It's functional, and there's no sign people are tiring of it, as the latest sales numbers confirm.

The iPad, which features a 9.7-inch display, couldn't possibly be considered portable. It's one thing to tote around your iPhone with you as you buzz about town, but it's another matter to lug around a near 10-inch behemoth. The iPhone fits in your pocket. You're lucky if the iPad fits inside your pocketbook.

And it's not just the impracticality of it all. HDTVs aside, the consumer electronics industry has successfully driven home the idea that smaller is better: You don't want a desktop PC, you want a notebook. You don't want a notebook, you want a netbook. You don't want a netbook, you want a smartphone that can run hundreds of tiny applications, dubbed "apps." (Even the words get smaller.) And now, perhaps, here's Apple, trying to convince us of the exact opposite, even as the iPhone continues to sell ridiculously well.

The numbers don't lie: Apple sold 8.6 million iPhones in the quarter leading up to December 26, 2009. That's 100 percent growth from the same quarter in 2008. The average company, coming out of the recession, would be thrilled with any growth at all. One-hundred percent growth? Madness.

But Apple isn't just any company. When Apple sneezes, the entire consumer electronics industry not only catches a cold, it has to take a week off from work. Earlier this month, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, one of the world's largest consumer electronics trade shows, you'd hear the same phrase repeatedly: How will this device compare with the Apple tablet?

It wouldn't compare, of course, if all we're talking about is the raw technology. But we're not. Apple has never sold the best spec'd devices. Instead, Apple owes its success to selling the best user experiences. After years of telling people that the iPhone represents the best experience money can buy, it may be tricky to do an about-face, and tell these same people, "You know what, actually, this other thing is the best experience."

The company's pedigree speaks for itself. The house that Steve Jobs built -- and saved, with his return in 1997 after a 12-year absence -- created such iconic products as the iMac, iPod, and, of course, the iPhone. All three stole their competitors' lunch money. But this time around, Apple's competition is itself, and you know what they say about a house divided.

The iPad really is "just" a big iPhone (well, iPod touch), isn't it? But that's the whole point. People clearly are keen on the iPhone as it exists today. Which returns us to our central question: When is an upgrade really a downgrade? Are people prepared to sacrifice the portability they get with the iPhone?

I'm skeptical.