A little over a year after Apple launched its iPad tablet-based computing device, the Cupertino juggernaut is preparing to announce its successor this Wednesday. While the original iPad got off to a slow start, sales skyrocketed during the 2010 holiday selling season, and Apple can now rightfully be credited with starting a new product category. Yes, I believe the iPad (together with the iPad copycats) will almost certainly take their place alongside traditional PCs (or perhaps in a future melding with traditional PCs).

The reason is simple: Despite its many problems--this is a very typical Apple 1.0 product in that regard--the iPad is, above all, simple. And for the vast majority of computer users--i.e. "normal" people--that's enough. It's more than enough, really: It's preferable.

As an old-guard PC guy, it took me a long time to wrap my mind around the paradigm shift represented by the iPad. And not because I don't get simplicity: I've been preaching that--begging for it, really--for years. But when you consider mainstream computing devices (i.e. PCs) the notion that such a thing could be stripped down to the bare minimum and then sold at a premium price is, well, revolutionary, more artistic than technological. The Windows world is like the SUV of computing, where more is always better, and as the years go by, the bloat and feature set rise in lockstep. The iPad refutes this notion, or at least resets it temporarily.

(To be fair, I'm not alone is not getting it: The goons that try to trick out an iPad like a real laptop by traveling with a dock and external keyboard are easily as misguided as was I, and maybe more. This is a good example of being on the wrong end of the old "consumption vs. creation" debate, where for now at least, the iPad is very much a consumption device. Don't try to squeeze a square peg into a round hole.)

The other inconvenient truth I should mention is that, when it comes to tablets and slates, in the Windows world, we've been there and done that. Microsoft announced its Tablet PC initiative in early 2002 and spent the next several years releasing and improving that software and shipping a variety of offshoots, such as Ultra-Mobile PC. Why would the iPad succeed where the Tablet PC failed? And how wouldn't it ruffle the PC world's feathers to hear Steve Jobs coo about how personal and intimate it was to use such a device. Right: But we knew all about that almost a decade ago in the PC world.

In retrospect, the answer to this question is also obvious: The iPad succeeded because it took a simpler system and upsized it. Compare this to the Tablet PC approach, which is taking a complex system and downsizing it, or at least pushing it into an unfamiliar form factor. Whereas Windows was designed for keyboard and mouse interaction, the iPad is basically a big iPhone, and it was designed from the get-go for finger-based interaction. The iPad makes more sense than the Tablet PC--for most people--because the overall system is more tightly integrated and conceived. It does less, but is simpler. The Tablet PC, by comparison, is a mess. It does everything you'll ever need, but is complex and unwieldy.

Anyway, this week Apple is going to announce the new iPad. If the rumors are true, the company will have addressed many, but not all, of my many complaints about the first version, which I still cannot recommend. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to look back at the last year of iPad coverage on this site, with an eye towards the future. Something tells me I will be able recommend the new iPad, and if enough of the issues from generation 1 are addressed, I may just use it regularly myself.

The iPad launch: "Apple drops an iDud" - January 27, 2010

Suffice to say I wasn't too impressed with the iPad when it was first announced. Key complaints, and there were many:

-          Huge bezel. The outside rim of the iPad (like that of the MacBook Air) is curiously thick. Some have told me this is necessary because you need to hold the thing with two hands, and I get that. It just seems like it could be thinner.

-          User interfaces that mimic real-life objects (i.e. the Address Book and iBooks), which is lazy at best and inefficient at worst. On the other hand, it could help some of the more technologically adverse make the transition.

-          No over the air sync. Requires a PC or Mac and is thus not a standalone computer.

I didn't dislike it all. I lauded the contract-less 3G wireless availability, for example. And the $499 starting price, while too expensive for a mainstream consumer device, was (still is) quite aggressive for Apple. This is one area I don't see improving with iPad 2: Apple has sold a lot of these things at a premium price. There's no incentive to stop doing that.

Overall, I felt that the iPad was a letdown.

iPad announcement: The morning after - January 28, 2010

The day after the iPad announcement I noted that the iPad was a weird "gray area" between the iPhone and the PC/Mac, something that had been tried before, sometimes successfully (the netbook). As with other Apple solutions, however, the iPad was/is a high-end luxury item, even though it was/is competing with low-end products (like netbooks). And it just didn't seem like a game changer to me.

"What we're left with here is a device that isn't necessary and doesn't really change anything," I wrote. "It's a front-end for Apple's e-commerce engine, and nothing more. And if you were looking for yet another way to spend money on Apple products, well, Steve Jobs has a solution for you. But if you have a bit of common sense, I'd sit back and wait this one out for now." You know, a year later, this is still very true.

The iPad arrives  - April 3, 2010

In early April, my own iPad arrived and my initial impressions were not hugely positive: It was heavier than expected. Had an old-school (big) power plug. The low-end version doesn't have enough storage. Why isn't it widescreen? No accessories were available immediately (typical for Apple). The screen is way too reflective, still my biggest complaint about this device. On the good news front, the performance was great.

My iPad review - April 7, 2010

A few days later, I posted my review of the iPad. I awarded the device three stars out of five, noting that the iPad was "simply good," which I still find accurate, too expensive (still true), and something that would soon be replaced by a second generation device that would fix many of the mistakes. Wait for that device, I recommended. Still great advice.

I liked a lot of what I saw, however. The device engineering was excellent as always. Battery life was crazy good and very impressive. I lauded Apple's decision to base the iPad on iOS instead of Mac OS X, a decision I would later come to realize that made all the difference in the world. The Mail, iPod, Safari, and other apps are excellent.

On the bad news front, the iPad is very heavy and can't be used one-handed, like a Kindle (which is the ideal size and weight for this kind of device, I think). Storage capacities are too small. There is no camera (or cameras). The iPhone user interface wasn't changed enough to take advantage of the bigger screen. The apps that ape real-world objects (Calendar, Address Book, etc.) are misguided, horrible.

Summing up, I noted that the iPad was (still is) a work in progress, lacking when examined closely and too expensive. And while I understood that people were drawn to shiny new gadgets, I was correct in noting that, for readers of my site, you do not need an iPad. "While the iPad is good but not excellent," I wrote, "it's most certainly the nicest tablet device I've ever used. And it's only going to get better over time." That still rings true to me.

Understanding iPad - May 3, 2010

About a month later, I took a stab at answering what had become a burning question: What is the iPad? Some would like to see iPad sales counted as PC sales, while other believe the iPad is simply part of the iPhone and iPod touch product family and is thus a non-PC device. My answer to this question: It is neither.

"The iPad is a new type of computing device, just as Apple claimed," I wrote. "It offers a premium user experience for certain kinds of tasks only, and comes with a premium price to match ... The iPad is not directly comparable to the netbook, because it is a premium consumption device and not a low-cost, stripped down version of something else ... The iPad is not a competitor to traditional PC (or Mac) notebooks for the reasons described before--consumption vs. contribution--and is, rather, additive."

Of all the things I wrote about the iPad last year, this is, perhaps, that latter line is the one about which I've changed my opinion the most. I do now feel that many (normal) people can use an iPad as a mainstream computing device instead of a PC, though of course you do actually need a PC just to set one up (at least for now). This doesn't mean the iPad is a "creation" or "contribution" device--it's not--it's just that most people's needs are so tiny. That is, they need email, web browsing, You Tube, and a few apps, or whatever. The iPad gets the job done, and in a package that offers tremendous battery life.

The other issue raised in this article was what devices would appear to compete with iPad in this new market segment? I didn't see any viable Windows-based alternatives appearing, and didn't (still don't) believe that Windows 7-based Tablet PCs will repeat Microsoft's success with netbooks. Instead, I felt that Android-based slates were going to be a more direct threat to the iPad than anything Microsoft or its partners could come up with. And that's what's happened, though HP (with webOS) and RIM (with the PlayBook) would like to be counted among this group as well.

How Apple can fix the IPad in 2011 - November 29, 2010

As I often do with high-profile but broken products, I issued my wish-list for the second iPad generation in late 2010. There's not much to say here, since it's all obvious: Lower prices, smaller and lighter form factor(s), better storage choices, dual cameras, a non-reflective screen and better (i.e. any) expansion choices. I'm curious to see how much of this makes it into iPad 2. Based on the rumors, a lot of it: Looks like my complaints weren't so off-base after all.

Final thoughts

As is so often the case with Apple's overly-emotional fans, many have taken my criticisms of the iPad over the past year a bit too personally. Yes, I've been critical. But I think those criticisms are also quite valid, and unlike some reviewers, I'm not eager to separate you from your hard-earned money. All that said, don't let any of this this mask a very real truth: With the iPad, Apple is onto something. And while the first generation device doesn't fully realize the potential, I'm betting that the second-gen one will. In fact, looking out over the next year, I would be surprised to see any competing device even come close. The iPad isn't for everyone, especially in its current state. And while it took longer to arrive than I had anticipated, I bet the second one will close the gap nicely. Stay tuned: This should be an interesting week.