But will the iPad replace it?

The PC era ended this morning at ten o’clock Pacific time, when Steve Jobs stepped onto a San Francisco stage to unveil the iPad, Apple’s version of a tablet computer. Tablets have been kicking around for a decade, but consumers have always shunned them. And for good reason: They’ve been nerdy-looking smudge-magnets, limited by their cumbersome shape and their lack of a keyboard. Tablets were a solution to a problem no one had.

The rapturous reaction to Apple’s tabletthe buildup to Jobs’s announcement blurred the line between media feeding-frenzy and orgiastic pagan ritual—shows that our attitude to the tablet form has finally changed. Tablets suddenly look attractive. Why? Because the nature of personal computing has changed.

Until recently, we mainly used our computers to run software programs (Microsoft Word, Quicken) installed on our hard drives. Now, we use them mainly to connect to the vast databases of the Internet—to “the cloud,” as the geeks say. And as the Internet has absorbed the traditional products of media—songs, TV shows, movies, games, the printed word—we’ve begun to look to our computers to act as multifunctional media players. The computer business and the media business are now the same business.

The transformation in the nature of computing has turned the old-style PC into a dinosaur. A bulky screen attached to a bulky keyboard no longer fits with the kinds of things we want to do with our computers. The obsolescence of the PC has spurred demand for a new kind of device—portable, flexible, always connected—that takes computing into the cloud era.

Suddenly, in other words, the tablet is a solution to a problem everyone has. Or at least it’s one possible solution. The computing market is now filled with all sorts of networked devices, each seeking to fill a lucrative niche. There are dozens of netbooks, the diminutive cousins to traditional laptops, from manufacturers like Acer and Asus. There are e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. There are smartphones like Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Nexus One. There are gaming consoles like Nintendo's Wii and the Microsoft’s Xbox. In some ways, personal computing has returned to the ferment of its earliest days, when the market was fragmented among lots of contending companies, operating systems, and technical standards.

With the iPad, Apple is hoping to bridge all the niches. It wants to deliver the killer device for the cloud era, a machine that will define computing’s new age in the way that the Windows PC defined the old age. The iPad is, as Jobs said today, “something in the middle,” a multipurpose gadget aimed at the sweet spot between the tiny smartphone and the traditional laptop. If it succeeds, we’ll all be using iPads to play iTunes, read iBooks, watch iShows, and engage in iChats. It will be an iWorld.

But will it succeed? The iPad is by no means a sure bet. It still, after all, is a tablet—fairly big and fairly heavy. Unlike an iPod or an iPhone, you can’t stick an iPad in your pocket or pocketbook. It also looks to be a cumbersome device. The iPad would be ideal for a three-handed person—two hands to hold it and another to manipulate its touchscreen—but most humans, alas, have only a pair of hands. And with a price that starts at $500 and rises to more than $800, the iPad is considerably more expensive than the Kindles and netbooks it will compete with.

But whether it finds mainstream success or not, there’s no going back; we’ve entered a new era of computing, in which media and software have merged in the Internet cloud. It’s hardly a surprise that Apple—more than Microsoft, IBM, or even Google—is defining the terms of this new era. Thanks to Steve Jobs, a bohemian geek with the instincts of an impresario, Apple has always been as much about show biz as about data processing. It sees its products as performances and its customers as both audience members and would-be artists.

Apple endured its darkest days during the early 1990s, when the PC had lost its original magic and turned into a drab, utilitarian tool. Buyers flocked to Dell’s cheap, beige boxes. Computing back then was all about the programs. Now, computing is all about the programming—the words and sounds and pictures and conversations that pour out of the Internet’s cloud and onto our screens. Computing, in other words, has moved back closer to the ideal that Steve Jobs had when he founded Apple. Today, Jobs’s ambitions are grander than ever. His overriding goal is to establish his company as the major conduit, and toll collector, between the media cloud and the networked computer.

Jobs doesn’t just want to produce glamorous gizmos. He wants to be the impresario of all media.

Nicholas Carr is the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. His next book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, will be published in June. This piece is cross-posted on his blog, Rough Type.

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