This year’s Macworld is different than most tech conferences because, outside of vendors on the exhibition floor, much of the focus is on entertainment. Both David Pogue and Leo Laporte did variations on the talk show – Pogue’s a celebration of all things Pogue, Laporte’s more traditional, featuring an interview with The Bird’s Roger McGuinn on the new music space, a chat with one of the Mythbusters guys, and a performance by Warp 11, a classic-punk band whose songs are all about Star Trek. And of course Kevin Smith rocked the crowd with his decidedly non-PC (the ideology, not the platform), non-tech, Q&A. So while in a sense the tech fades to the background, Macworld is still a conference about the Apple ecosystem. The three main themes repeated among conference attendees and the media are: 1. Apple’s absence has really marred the event. 2. It should no longer be called Macworld, as it’s more focused on the iPhone than anything else. 3. What do you think of the iPad?

While Macworld didn't offer any answers to the first two questions, it did address the third. After Apple’s iPad announcement two weeks ago, Macworld added an "iPad Event" to its schedule.

Macwlorld VP and editorial director Jason Snell hosted a panel featuring Dan Moren (Macworld), Ted Landau (Mac Observer), Ryan Block (, formerly of engadget) and Andy Ihnatok (Chicago Sun-Times, owner of impressive lambchop sideburns), who gave their thoughts on the device.

The line to get into the iPad event is even longer than for Kevin Smith. Before the panel comes on stage, the standing-room-only crowd bats around giant beach balls like we’ve been transported back to the mid-90s (The balls end up determining the winner of an actual iPad).

Radiohead, probably the closest musical analogue Apple has – pop beauty posing as progressive transcendence – plays in the background, as it has for most of the last few days. Steve Jobs and Thom Yorke: making you a better person (maybe not fitter, but definitely happier) with no attendant effort required on your part.

The panel walks onstage to heavy applause. Like the conference itself, the iPad event is most conspicuous for what it lacks – an actual iPad. Everyone onstage holds a Styrofoam version of the device, making the writers’ job easy by building the metaphors for us.

While there is no iPad present, four of the five panelists (Ted's the one who's not like the others) used one at the official iPad event two weeks ago. Here’s what they had to say:

Ryan: Everything served the screen; it’s especially good for a browser. The iPad is well balanced, feels well constructed. Maybe too heavy. I have a lot of complaints. There’s a lot of empty space that could be put to use.

Andy: My first impression is the quality of the build -- unlike netbooks, it feels like a quality product. The device disappears when you use the apps. It doesn’t look impressive in streamed video, but interacting directly with software is a transformative experience.

It’s not too heavy to read as a book, but you do have to grip it. One of the first apps will be grip tape from Home Depot.

Ted: I’m in line like everyone else. How good is closed nature of iPad, especially as it's more like computing than using a smartphone? iPhone users can’t get things outside of the App Store.

Matt: Does the iPad as computer exacerbate issues of the App Store?

Andy: The iPad is the ultimate proof of concept. Apple is ultimate example of Dr Doom as a CEO: do what I want you to do.

Ryan: You can use unauthorized 3rd party apps, but it's hard to find where to do it, and you are warned against it

Matt: You’re free to do whatever you want, but we have a preferred way of you doing things.

Ryan: The App Store gets you direct access, but the problem is that Apple won’t budge on what you can and can’t use.

Dan: In early stages, Apple wants to ensure the experience is smooth. So they need control. They're telling you it’s a consumer electronics product, not a computer

Matt: Is apple reinventing computers?

Andy: What Apple does best is getting down to the real question: what is a computer? As a consumer, I need a keyboard, need to get files on and off the thing. I don’t think it’s the next iPhone – it’s the next Macintosh, transforming computing.

Ted: Look what the iPhone can do today that it couldn’t do when Jobs premiered it in 2007. The majority of people who are happy with laptops today will be using the iPad in 3-4 years.

Dan: Ergonomics is a question. We’ve adapted to technology – we sit a certain way when we use a desktop. We adapt to the computer, but the iPhone and iPad adapt to you.

Andy: Jobs looked comfortable using the iPad. But anytime you see an apple keynote, you’re watching a magic act. Those chairs were designed to make him look comfortable using the device.

Dan: I’m worried about how e-books will work on this. Can you share books? Readers are losing the freedom to do what we want with books. But I think the iPad will be a whole new paradigm in computing, just like files and a mouse replacing DOS.

Ryan: Steve (Jobs) was smart to say that it was a middle-ground product (between netbooks and smartphones), that it will have to create a market. It’s not going to take my computer’s place when I have to be productive.

Ted: I’m more optimistic about its long-term uses than those that are available here today. Most computer users don’t use their computers to do things that iPad can’t do. The iPad in the digital home becomes remote control. I think, ultimately we’ll be surprised in what iPad can do, because of 3rd party apps.

Andy: Every time I use a Microsoft tablet, I’m not using a tablet, I’m using a desktop with my finger as a mouse. The iPad will become big in 2011. There will be big halo effect like Star Wars did for sci-fi films. It will break us free of the ‘type on this, look at that’ computing paradigm

Matt: Last question: What’s your biggest unanswered question about the iPad?

Ted: Will there be multitasking? What features are they holding back for OS 4.0?

Dan: Will there be a better screen design? Right now, there’s a lot of empty space. The dock only holds six apps.

Matt: It looks like those giant checks they give to lottery winners.

Ryan: Multitasking is the big question.

Andy: How easy will it be to get content into iPad store? If they follow the App Store model, it will be problematic but will work. If they follow the iTunes model, there could be problems.

By Mark Alvarez