I was giving a keynote speech to about 200 people last month when, right in the middle of my talk, I noticed someone in the front row taking notes on her brand-spanking-new iPad. I couldn’t resist. I stopped what I was saying and walked over to her.

“Is that an iPad?” I asked. “Yep,” she replied. I reached out. “May I?” I asked. “Sure,” she said. So I caressed it lovingly and sighed. Fortunately for me, the audience understood and started to laugh.

But it was no laughing matter to me. It was beautiful. I want one. I have iPad envy. I want its virtual weightlessness (lugging around a 7+ pound laptop is not as much fun as it seems). I want ten hours of battery life. I want the ability to play movies on a plane without the person in front of me reclining their seat and crushing my screen (and making my time on the flying cigar tube even less joyful). I want the ability to use this 1.5-pound beauty to write this column using Word, catch up on my e-mail with Outlook, deliver my PowerPoint presentations at my next conference, and then sync it all up with my PC once I got home.

Oops! Apparently, there is no version of PowerPoint or Word or Excel or Outlook for the iPad, as there is for the Mac. The iPad is more iPhone than computer. Seemingly entertainment-focused rather than business-focused. I was crushed. Would I have to compromise with a netbook (so “yesterday”) or one of those new, very small, very light, but very expensive mini-laptops? I decided to drive on over to my nearest Apple Store and belly -up to the Genius Bar to ask them how to make the iPad serve my professional needs. This is how it went (more or less):

Me: “Hi, I want to get an iPad but I need to run my PowerPoint files on it.”

Genius: “Why would you want to do that?”

Me: “I give a lot of presentations and I do my original work on a PC.”

Genius: “Why would you want to do that?”

Me: “I’m comfortable with a PC, and my clients prefer it.”

Genius: “Oh well, if you insist. You can’t run PowerPoint (or Word or Excel) on the iPad. Maybe one day Microsoft will create iPad apps for these programs, but I really don’t know anything more.”

Me: “Great. Is there any other way?”

Genius: “No. Unless you get a Mac.”

Me: “Is there someone else I can talk to?”

Genius: “Sure, just a minute.”

Genius 2: “Hi, can I help you?”

Me: “Is there any way I can show my PowerPoint slides on the iPad?”

Genius 2: “Why would you want to do that?”

Me: “Ok, I get it, Microsoft and PCs are the devil and Apple and Macs represent heaven on earth. Fine, but humor me. Let’s say I was forced, at gunpoint, to run PowerPoint on an iPad. How could I do it?”

Genius 2: “Well, you can convert your PowerPoint file to Keynote (Apple’s presentation software). Or you can convert the presentation to video. Or you can convert the presentation to a series of jpegs. Or you can upload it to “the cloud.” Or you can run it through iTunes. Or …”

Me: “Stop, please. My head hurts. You mean there’s no way to simply sync my slides between my computer and the iPad, or use a USB drive to transfer the file?”

Genius 2: “No.”

Me: “Ok, thanks.”

Genius 2: “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

OK, so Apple is just being Apple; no surprise there. The company sold one million iPads the first month; you have to admit, that’s impressive. Most impressive though is that Apple has opened yet another interesting door of possibilities, and you can be sure that others will soon be rushing through it with their own “pads” or “slates” that may address the embedded base of Windows/Office users, a base that seems too large to ignore. But things change all the time; for example, HP’s recent purchase of Palm and its WebOS software could point to an entirely new direction, away from Windows. I’m sure Google’s Android and Chrome software will be in the mix. And Microsoft might actually come around to creating apps for these new devices. So, as hard as it will be, I am going to wait and see what happens. I might still go iPad – it’s so gorgeous – but I want to compare.

A game changer

And while I wait, and read the reviews, and make myself crazy, I am certain about one thing: like the iPhone, the iPad is a game-changer, and for us, this is especially important for mobile learning. The “always connected” iPad can be the model for a new, low-cost, portable platform that is truly independent of place and space (and wires), with a large enough screen and the processing power to deliver both formal and informal learning. It could take advantage of cloud computing like nothing else has ever done (R.I.P., DVD). More on this in my next column.

Will abundant content, technological simplicity, office productivity, rich media, interactivity, and “anytime and anyplace” connectedness finally walk hand-in-hand? Let’s hope so. If the iPad and its brethren can make this work reliably for learning, it will really be something to see.