“It’s Just A Big iPod Touch”

Over the weekend, I got two emails from my mother. The most interesting aspect of them was the sign-off at the bottom: “Sent from my iPad”.

This stood out to me for two reasons: First, I’ve now been using the iPad Air for the past couple of weeks, and thinking a lot about the state of the product. Second, this is my mother using an iPad. An iPad! Regularly!

On a scale of 1 to 10 when it comes to tech savviness, I’d generously give my mother a 2. Sorry mom — but I think she’d (reluctantly) agree. Some of my earliest childhood memories revolve around “fixing” the television for her. “Fixing” here often meaning selecting the correct input or making sure the power was in fact on. Later, I would put the same work into the VCR. Then the computer.

She certainly doesn’t hate technology, but it doesn’t seem to get along too well with her. And I know that the rapid pace of change in tech has been a source of frustration for her throughout the years. Just when she learns how to use one thing, the entire world changes. I completely understand her reluctance to embrace any new technology.

So again, imagine my amazement when I saw the telltale sign of iPad usage: that email signature.

To be clear, I’m the one who gave her the iPad. About a year ago, I gave her an iPad 2, knowing her computer (my old, old, old computer) was likely on its last legs. And while I gave her a walk-through of how to use the new device, I didn’t expect it to stick. After all, not only was she not an iPhone user, she wasn’t even a smartphone user. The idea of “apps” was a foreign one to her. I’m guessing the only times she was regularly using a touchscreen was at an ATM.

And yet, “Sent from my iPad”.

So I did what any fascinated tech blogger would do: I emailed my mother a series of questions about her usage of the iPad. Her response was illuminating:

So yes, I like the iPad, but I miss a keyboard. I don’t like this touchpad. But I use it now in place of my old computer. I go on Pinterest. But I am having a few issues (as usual). It just shuts down and the Apple appears on the black screen. Must be that I’m using it too much? I use it for email, Facebook, and checking things out. Love you. Xoxox

Sent from my iPad

I’m not 100 percent sure this is the perfect response from an “average” iPad user of a certain age, but I’d bet it’s pretty close. “Miss a keyboard.” “I go on Pinterest.” “Email.” “Facebook.” “Checking things out.”

The iPad has become a full-on computer replacement for my mother. And beyond the keyboard quibble, it sure seems to be a more than adequate one for her.

So I have to laugh when I think back to the unveiling of the original iPad nearly four years ago. At the time, a not insignificant portion of the population seemed to write it off as “just a big iPod touch.”

That included Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Meanwhile, in their last reported fiscal year, Nintendo did $6 billion in sales. The iPad? $32 billion. Yes, the iPad alone is now roughly five times the business of all of Nintendo.

My mother would never use an iPod touch. But she is using an iPad. And I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the iPad Air.

I’ve been torn between whether or not I’d rather have the forthcoming retina iPad mini or the svelte iPad Air. Using the Air these past two weeks has just led to more conflict in my head. I can come up with perfect use cases for both devices (before having regularly used the retina iPad mini, of course).

And while a lot of people I know in the tech scene seem to be firmly in the retina iPad mini camp, I think of users like my mother, who I don’t think would like the mini as much as the Air. In fact, she saw my first generation iPad mini last year and thought it was too small. Remember, she’s using the iPad as a computer replacement.

So this iPad Air would seem to be the perfect device for her. It maintains the same screen size and battery life of the elder iPads. But it’s now significantly lighter and faster.

I’ve been thinking about my mother’s remarks about the keyboard/touchscreen as well. It’s fairly remarkable that it’s the only real source of pain at this point in her transition from a laptop to the iPad. (Well, beyond the Apple black restart screen of death, which I see all the time too — what’s going on here, Apple? Unlike my mother, I know it’s not due to overuse.)

I’m actually sort of surprised Apple hasn’t attempted to do something interesting in the keyboard accessory space. Yes, it may mean copying Microsoft. And yes, it may mean admitting that typing on a physical keyboard is easier than a virtual one. And yes, Apple won that battle on the phone side of things. But this is different.

Apple won the phone touchscreen keyboard battle versus the physical keyboards because most people were not used to any keyboard (beyond the number keys) on their phones when the iPhone launched. It was only BlackBerry users that were the longtime diehard holdouts since they had known the physical keyboard world and had a hard time adapting to the new world order.

And while the tablet space was also relatively new and so there was no entrenched keyboard power, a lot of people are coming to the iPad from the PC and using it as a replacement. People like my mother. She longs for that keyboard.

Of course, there are a number of good third-party keyboard options for the iPad. I’ve long had and loved the Logitech variety (though not the one for the iPad mini, it’s too small for my taste). And it’s great that Apple’s own iOS software accommodates these third-party devices. Which again is why I’m sort of surprised Apple itself hasn’t made a move here.

The iPad may not be a PC, but there are a lot of users who are now using it in lieu of a PC. And while kids growing up today may be fine using a virtual keyboard having never have really known a physical keyboard (and not sending nearly as much email as the rest of us), there are probably tens of millions of users — if not more — who would make the jump to an iPad if there was some sort of physical keyboard option.

Which is undoubtedly exactly why Microsoft made the Surface keyboard covers.

All of this is a long-winded way of getting to the real question: is the iPad finally good enough to be your only computer? For the vast majority of people reading this on TechCrunch, the answer is undoubtedly still “no”. But for my mother, the answer is clearly “yes”.

And that’s the iPad 2. Holding an iPad 2 next to the iPad Air now feels like night and day. Truth be told, the iPad Air actually feels a lot more like an iPad mini than any of the older 9.7-inch iPads thanks to the trimmed down sides.

I mainly carry around an 11-inch MacBook Air these days as my work machine, but when the Logitech keyboard is available for the iPad Air, I’ll be tempted to make the jump myself. The difference in size and weight may not seem like much on paper, but it’s actually just about the weight of an iPad 2. (A bit more with the keyboard, obviously — though I wouldn’t carry it around all the time, just when I knew I had to do a lot of typing.)

But again, what’s most interesting to me here isn’t my own usage. I’m clearly an edge-case that will go out of my way to try to make the iPad Air fit into my life while casting my computer to the sideline in the name of progress. My mother is a common user. All she wants to do is pin things on Pinterest, post things on Facebook, and send some emails. She wants convenience, portability, and simplicity. And she’s iPad-only.

And this new iPad Air is better in every way compared to the iPad 2 (except now in price). Those people still using an old 8 pound HP machine that runs so hot that you can cook an egg on it, must be looking at the iPad Air and salivating. It’s salvation — perhaps just minus a keyboard. It’s a device clearly accessible to the computing mainstream.

One thing it’s not: a big iPod touch.