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Steve Jobs re-invents the portable telly

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Analysis If you don't understand what Apple's iPad is all about, think of it this way: it's a portable TV.

You think we jest? Consider. What we call a TV has long become divorced from its original function: to receive and display broadcast pictures. The process of separation began in the 1980s when we started watching pre-recorded tapes on our VCRs, but is now reaching its peak.

Today, we display content from games consoles, disc players, media extenders that pull content off network-attached storage, videos from the likes of YouTube, photos stored on memory cards, and, increasingly, general internet sites. BBC iPlayer and its like show that even the programmes themselves no longer need by explicitly associated with the process of broadcast by transmission.

In short, the TV in your living room is no longer a television - it's a general-purpose display system. And that's what the iPad is, only portable.

There's nothing inherent in the nature of today's flat-panel TVs that prevent them doing anything the iPad can do. E-books, for instance, are no more than just another form of digital content. All the iPad lacks is a remote control, but then, since it's a handheld device, it doesn't need one. Likewise the TV doesn't need a touch UI - both have the control mechanisms appropriate to them.

But the underlying application - multi-format content display system - is exactly the same.

In other words, the iPad is a portable telly. Not the kind Sir Clive Sinclair envisaged - or, at least, produced - in the late 1970s, but a handheld TV nonetheless.

It's also arguably the first true information appliance. Analysts talked a lot about these devices during the late 1990s, punting them as set-top alternatives to the personal computer that would bring about the so-called 'post-PC age'.

They never did. At that point, the internet hadn't yet become an important everyday tool for the majority of the population, and no one understood then the desire for mobility. And the UIs were generally awful.

One of the few companies that might have made a difference back then was Apple, but it preferred - understandably - to focus its UI talents on its computing line, in particularly the newly introduced iMac.

The iPod took it beyond that market segment into the broader consumer electronics arena, and the iPod Touch and iPhone eventually showed us what a true mobile internet device might be like.

However, both were designed for a specific, pocket-friendly form-factor. The iPad, on the other hand, is the true mobile internet appliance.

Some people will bemoan the iPad's lack of a real keyboard - they can go and buy a netbook or lug a laptop around. Or use Apple's keyboard dock. Others will complain about the lack of a general-purpose file-focused operating system - they can go and use a Windows Tablet PC. Yet more will decide their smartphone is sufficient - this reporter has - and will happily continue to use it for mobile internet and media consumption.

But a lot of folk - and not just the usual suspects - will take a shine to this handy, personal, internet-connected portable telly. A telly that's not restricted to the room it's placed in. A telly you can easily take on holiday with you, or just out to the park.

The TV isn't going away anytime soon. And neither is the iPad. ®

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