How the iPad, and the slate computer, will evolve in the next two years

With the iPad hitting pre-order in two days and shipping in April, it’s important to think about when and why to buy the iPad. Based on our understanding of the product lifecycle and expected moves by Apple’s competitors, we foresee big changes in the ultraportable landscape with the ultraportable/netbook as we now know it mutating – or branching – into a new species of media oriented Win7 and Android devices. Here’s what we can expect.

April 3, 2010 – Big launch. Light crowds at the Apple Store. This isn’t huge-huge. It’s medium-huge and I don’t think you’re going to see an army of the pasty arriving at your local shop clamoring for iPads. This is Apple’s wait and see product, although I don’t doubt between 3-5 million won’t wait and see in 2010.

May-June 2010 – Chinese knock-offs will flood the market and we’ll see a nice collection of weird, mutated slates hitting the more esoteric sites. Nothing major and no big sellers.

Summer 2010 – Dell and HP release their devices. Dell’s is called the Mini 5 AKA the Streak and HP’s as of yet unamed. These guys will wait until the waters have been fully tested before they move with their devices.

Holidays 2010 – Expect an iPad bump. This could include more memory for cheaper or more features. The most obvious feature is a front-facing camera. Holiday and Back-to-School are Apple’s favorite time to upgrade but I don’t see them doing much in the way of upgrading before next Christmas. Don’t expect a fall in price at this time, just a change in specs.

Summer 2011 – A whole new iPad and a potential contender from another corner, potentially Microsoft’s Courier product. By this time Apple will have either convinced the world they need and iPad or we’ll have another MacBook Air on our hands. While I’m leaning towards the former, the latter could still come to pass.

Here’s another ball out of left field: what if Google came out with a slate running their own official version of Chrome OS. A GooglePad, then, would blow everyone’s minds and essentially make this a two-horse race. It’s a fascinating idea but I wouldn’t expect Google to move on this for at least a year.

Back-to-School 2011 – Full iPad integration into the product line. The worst thing that the iPad could be at Apple is another Apple TV like outlier. By this time MacBooks will have changed, moving towards a more iPad UI model while netbooks will lose some ground to media slates that run Android and hang out on your coffee table.

Carriers will also get in on the act with manufacturers like HTC upping the size of their devices to reflect a slate form factor.

The trick is for Apple to normalize the slate form factor. Yes, slates have been around for years but people have never seen the value in a slate computer except in niche situations. What the iPad is is a slate “browser” or “net device,” something decidedly different than the monstrosities we’ve seen thus far. In general, once slate usage is normalized, I don’t think the mass of iPad/slate users will actually want to go back to netbooks. While I may be bullish, I think the iPad is carving a niche that will change entire landscape of low-cost computing this decade.