For far too long, the "meatspace" has been dealing with a keyboard, a display, and a mouse-like input device. Even the evolution of portable systems was 25 years ago or more. Since then, what has happened? Refinement, but not re-thinking. As much as I adore my spiffy aluminum/aluminium MacBook Pro, it's the same song and dance as my old Digital Hi-Note Ultra. This willingness to accept the same old crap is also why flying in an airplane today is like a crowded Greyhound bus. No matter what you make of the iPad, kudos to Jobs and company for making waves.
And, on the subject of credit due, let's be sure to point out the blunders that have let Apple walk away with the market lead with out even a challenge (save one, which I'll get to in a moment). Microsoft has been navel gazing with a product code named/called Courier. This could have made it to market possibly before the iPad if Microsoft had any will or direction about what to do with it. No, instead they killed it off after the iPad had sold a swift million units.
Shortly before the iPad popped up, Microsoft showed off Windows 7 based tablets, including a real slick iPad-looking affair made by HP called the Slate. This was supposed to be ready by the end of 2010. Okay, well, that's something I guess. By then the iPad would have probably passed 10 million units, but whatever- at least it'd be an option. Then, as a bit of a surprise, HP bought Palm and killed the Windows 7 based Slate. They now intend to run the Palm OS on the same or similar tablet device and hopefully by the years end. *sigh*
Google, now the subject of considerable Apple bitterness, has announced that they are working with Verizon (and presumably the phone hardware maker HTC) to make a tablet device that will run the Google-spawned, open source phone operating system Android. Humph. By the time this gets to market I'll be trimming my bountiful thatch of ear hair, common to old men. Plus, Verizon is only a few ticks better than AT&T, so this isn't great news from a cost expectation or service perspective.
So with all these "johnny-come-latelies" clamoring to get their "me too!" products to market, what the hell does exist as an option? That's an area with room for debate. For example, would you consider the iPod Touch or the iPhone a competitor to the iPad? I don't, but I can see validity in the idea that these devices are alternatives. Really, only the eBook readers and netbooks cover any of this ground.
Netbooks are certainly not as elegant or polished as the iPad, but then they are capable of more, and are often half or less the price of the iPad. I have a netbook that runs the Mac OS (an MSI Wind) and with that I can do a full 95% of what the iPad can do, and several things it can't. The netbook is limited by battery life (usually 2-3 hours, versus the iPad ~10 hours) and are bulkier with an archaic interface. eBook readers like the Kindle, Nook, and Sony devices cover a different area, and I suspect will remain popular with dedicated book readers. They eschew color screens in favor of a paper-white display that (unlike the iPad) can be read in any lighting including direct sunlight, and they hold a charge for two weeks or so.
These two devices in my view represent the competition for the iPad, and when costs are taken into account, I can see why Apple has been so successful. There is no reason for an eBook reader to cost more than $100, and I expect that price point will happen in short order, and certainly by the holiday season. Hell, these should be loss-leaders for the booksellers who make ~$10 per eBook. Regardless of a serious upheaval in the pricing models used, I think eReaders will survive. Netbooks on the other hand, are in for real trouble. There are some devoted geeks like me that will buy a netbook and tinker with it, but I don't think this is representative of the overall sales that have happened to date. I would be interested in seeing metrics of sales numbers for both of these categories (eBook readers and netbooks) for this year, and my expectation is that the numbers would show that netbooks are the item most hurt by the iPad.
Interestingly, I think the iPad is being purchased by people who are less technically inclined, versus the avid geek types. Look around at the buyers and you'll see what I mean. My mother and wife are way more inclined to use one than I am, and I'm the prototypical "early adopter". To me, this says that the iPad is not finished, or not adequately filling a need. Whatever the reasons that make the die hard techies less enthusiastic about this will probably be addressed in the next revision, and that will be the game changer. Meanwhile the window of time is closing for any would-be iPad killers.