When people talk about the future they were promised as kids they often say, "where are the flying cars?" The iPad is the flying car of consumer electronics. It's the exact device that the futuristic movies and tv shows have always promised us and now it's here.
Personal computers (both Mac and Windows-based) have gotten a lot easier to use and many people are now comfortable with them, but let's not kid ourselves: computers are hard. Even Macs. Want proof, Apple nerds? Try using search in the Finder. It's painful. Macs "just work" when the user already has a certain familiarity with the basics of personal computing.
The operating systems we use today are still based around the office-oriented concepts of files and folders. I suspect that's because when Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was creating the first GUI they were imagining the office of the future, not the home of the future. We've lived with that for twenty years because home computers still did mostly the same things that office computers did.
Fortunately we've been freeing ourselves of the office idiom over the last few years. Thanks to the MP3, the iPod and the Internet, we've seen the gradual shift from the computer as spreadsheet-and-word-processing machine to a true information appliance. The iPad could potentially fulfill the promise of the original Macintosh.
This is where it gets fun for designers and developers. We are now free to ask a really interesting question: "what do regular people actually want to do with this magic tablet that can basically do anything?" Yeah, we know that they'll want to watch movies, play games and surf the Internet. But what else? And when we figure out what they want to do we, the designers, will get to figure out the easiest and most intuitive way to do it. My mind boggles at the potential for rethinking everything we've become accustomed to when designing user interfaces for the web.
Some of you might be saying, "but isn't it just a big iPhone? What's the big deal?" To which I say, "YES! Exactly! It's an iPhone that's big enough to show lots of information. What more could you want?"
And please don't say "Flash."
P.S. I think Apple missed a great opportunity when they called it the iPad rather than the PowerBook or the iBook.