March 6, 2012 at 2:43 PM ET
A little more than two years ago, Steve Jobs unveiled a first-of-its kind consumer tablet with a joke-worthy name. It had been one of his obsessions for years, even before the iPhone. Naysayers thought Apple would be better served by coming out with a netbook. (You remember netbooks, don't you?)
Wednesday's expected unveiling of the third-generation iPad will be a bittersweet event. Jobs won't be there for it; he died last October. But no matter what features the new iPad has or doesn't have, there's no question that it has upended personal technology like no other product in the past decade.
"The iPad has had huge impact," said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at NPD Connected Intelligence.
"In pioneering a new category, it has in some ways been even more significant than the iPod and even iPhone because it has disrupted so many different device manufacturers, creating a market opportunity for other smartphone makers, a challenge to other PC makers and even potentially influencing how we may watch television in the future in a multi-screen scenario. It has also extended digital content opportunities to make books and longer-form video on-the-go a more practical experience than they are on the smartphone."
"The iPad was the first device to successfully bridge the gap between the PC and smartphone for consumers," said Michael Gartenberg, Gartner research director for consumers services and applications.
Since it landed in the first consumer's hands April 3, 2010, more than 55 million iPads have been sold worldwide, used for watching (and streaming) movies, reading books, magazines and newspapers, Web surfing and playing games. Parents use iPads to keep kids amused with a range of inventive apps, from coloring to story-telling. There are more than 140,000 apps specifically for the iPad.
A threat to the PC
iPads -- and some other tablets -- are becoming familiar common coffee-table fixtures in households around the country. They're also being stowed in the briefcases and bags of travelers, whether they're going by car or by plane. And they're increasingly carried by teachers, doctors, lawyers, real estate agents -- a wide range of professionals who find they can do much of their work with a tablet.
The iPad "officially launched the era of post-PC computing," said Sarah Rotman Epps, Forrester Research senior analyst. It made computing "more intimate, more casual, and more portable than PC computing." It also made touchscreen computing "mainstream." She added, "It’s hard to overstate the impact of Apple’s iPad."
Put simply, the iPad has become the go-to PC substitute for a variety of activities.
People "leave their laptops behind more often, taking advantage of the tablet's lighter weight, ubiquitous connectivity, long battery life and catalog of useful applications," said Gartenberg.
"We are seeing some of the tasks traditionally performed on devices, such as PCs, now being performed on the tablet," said NPD's Stephen Baker in a recent report. "In fact, all five of the top activities (email, Web surfing, game-playing, social networking and online shopping) shifted towards the tablet between early and late 2011."
Smarter than any phone
Many of these are activities we do on our smartphones, of course, but doing them on the 9.7-inch iPad is not only more pleasurable visually, it leads to entirely new behaviors.
Watching video -- be it movies, TV or YouTube -- is definitely one of the "preferred" uses of tablet owners who also have smartphones, as is Web surfing and email, according to new research from Nielsen.
In a chart titled, "Tablets are for meals. Smartphones are for snacks," Nielsen shows how 10 percent or less of smartphone owners opt to do those activities on their phones. Social networking -- Facebook and Twitter -- is also better done on a tablet than smartphone, as is writing emails. Aside from making phone calls, the only activity right now where the smartphone beats the tablet is instant messaging. But even 18 percent said they're doing that on their tablets.
Where are the Android tablets?
ABI Research recently noted that iPad users collectively downloaded 3 billion apps since the tablet was launched in spring 2010. The iPhone "took as long as two years before being able to achieve this level of downloads ... In comparison, Android tablets only have around 440 million downloads thus far."
"Besides offering a larger quantity of iPad-specific apps, Apple’s iPad apps are generally considered to be of a better quality compared to Android tablet-specific apps," ABI said.
The best-known Android tablet -- one that uses Google's operating system -- is Amazon's Kindle Fire, released last fall to positive reviews. It's the most successful challenger so far to the iPad. A variety of other Android tablets, including models from Samsung, Motorola, Sony, plus non-Android iPad variants from HP and BlackBerry, have made only minor dents in the market thus far.
Some think that when the latest version of Android, 4.0, (also known as Ice Cream Sandwich) becomes widely available on tablets in the months ahead, it will spur Android tablet sales, driving them to the point of sales equality with the iPad, much in the same way that Android phones and the iPhone are now.
"Longer term, the wide variety of an improved tablet experience from Google, better support from Android developers, more diverse screen sizes and configurations and especially lower average price points should help to expand Android's share of the tablet market," said Rubin of NPD.
Still, the iPad, which had about 73 percent of worldwide tablet sales last year, is expected to keep its lead until 2014, according to Gartner Research.
"Android tablet vendors have focused on hardware specifications over eco-system, applications and services and that's one reason why none have done overly well in the market," said Gartenberg.
"Until other tablet vendors can answer the question of 'Why should I buy this device instead of an iPad?' Apple is likely to dominate the market."
Join us Wednesday at 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern for live coverage of the new iPad unveiling here on msnbc.com's Gadgetbox. And for up-to-the-minute live tweets and images from the event, plus pre- and post-event commentary, follow Tech & Science Editor Wilson Rothman on Twitter at @wjrothman.