With Apple's iPad, Can Steve Jobs Change the World Again?

Steve Jobs has masterfully built buzz around the launch of the iPad, which hits shelves Saturday.
Steve Jobs has masterfully built buzz around the launch of the iPad, which hits shelves Saturday.

Can Steve Jobs pull another rabbit out of his magic hat?

With Apple (AAPL) releasing its iPad after months of buildup, consumers will soon find out as they finally get their hands on the new tablet computer. Few product launches in the history of technology have received as much fanfare as the iPad. The closest examples would have to be Apple's iPod and iPhone, which radically disrupted the music and phone markets.

Indeed, no executive at any other company is as skilled at building buzz as Steve Jobs. Millions of people followed along when Jobs introduced the iPad in January. And millions more can actually buy it now that it's being released. Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty expects Apple to sell as many as 6 million iPads in 2010 alone, and Wall Street's consensus is in the 3 million to 4 million range. If Apple can get anywhere near those numbers, the iPad will be a huge financial success.

Apple is already on a roll -- its shares have tripled since the market hit bottom in March 2009 -- and my colleague Dan Burrows thinks Apple's stock price could soar higher still.

Media and Publishing Industries Have High Hopes

Many media and publishing industry insiders think the iPad could be the key to unlocking the digital future of their markets. "Frankly, when I saw the iPad, it was like an epiphany," John Makinson, chairman and CEO of Penguin, toldTime Magazine. "This has to be the future of publishing." For people like Makinson, the thin, 9.7-inch iPad could represent a door to a generation of youngsters who have grown up utterly meshed with gadgets and digital media.

Even before its release, the iPad already caused e-book headaches for Amazon, which has seen early success in the e-book market with its Kindle device.

Like no other tech company, Apple has proven its ability to design gorgeous digital products that customers seem to use naturally, almost intuitively. The products just seem to emerge fully realized out of Jobs's brain, and the maestro can have an almost hypnotic effect on even the most seasoned tech journalists.

One veteran writer, Stephen Fry at Time Magazine, said meeting Jobs made him more nervous than meeting "five British Prime Ministers, two American Presidents, Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson and the Queen." At his famous keynote speeches and product launch, Jobs has the uncanny ability to transfix his audience, creating what many now refer to his "reality distortion field."

And at the iPad launch and in subsequent interviews, Jobs has called the experience of using the device "magical."

The Future Has Arrived

For the last several months I've taken a willful, aggressively skeptical stance on the iPad, but even I must admit that this device could change personal computing nearly as much as the Macintosh did when Jobs unveiled it in 1984 with a now-legendary Super Bowl commercial.

Already the early iPad reviews are in, and suffice to say, they're positive. "After spending hours and hours with it, I believe this beautiful new touch-screen device from Apple has the potential to change portable computing profoundly, and to challenge the primacy of the laptop," Walt Mossberg, The Wall Street Journal's reviewer writes. "It could even help, eventually, to propel the finger-driven, multitouch user interface ahead of the mouse-driven interface that has prevailed for decades."

"People will have to learn a new way of relating to a computer, almost like learning a new language," writes Bloomberg's Rich Jaroslovsky. "Luckily for them, though, Apple has made the new language both elegant and very easy to master."

The iPad won't appeal to everyone, especially not to those folks who insist on things like a physical keyboard and mouse. But if Steve Jobs has his way, those two objects may someday -- in the not-too-distant future -- seem as quaint as the typewriter.