I'm about to take a week off from my new gig as COO at Zendesk and it got me reflecting on the company and my decision to join. I stayed with MySQL through the Sun acquisition and left when Oracle acquired Sun. Although I have a lot of respect for Oracle, it seemed to me the only interesting jobs would be those that report directly to Larry Ellison. So I took some time off to travel, worked as an EIR at Scale Ventures for a few months and began thinking about what I wanted to do next.
I turned down offers from companies and investors to come in and "repeat the MySQL playbook" in Big Data or NoSQL or apps or whatever. I think Open Source can be a fantastic development approach and it provides good commercial possibilities when done at scale, but I also felt that it was time to do something new. And as important as Open Source has been in powering the last ten years of Internet companies, I felt that there was an even bigger force that would play out over the next ten years: namely the cloud.
While some are quick to dismiss the cloud as a new buzzword for an approach that's been around for a while, I think that's missing the forest for the trees. I believe the transition to Software-as-a-Service, Platform-as-a-Service, Infrasctructure-as-a-Service will be as profound as the introduction of the PC, client/server or even the browser. In other words, this is a huge platform shift that will have profound effect on businesses and individuals. It may take some years to play out, but from my perspective, cloud is where the excitement is.
When I joined Zendesk back in December it was already a strong business. The founders Mikkel, Alex, Morten had built a phenomenal business. They got to over 7,000 customers worldwide without a sales team! That's the kind of adoption that makes open source guys envious. And I don't mean just free users; these are paying customers including the likes of Cloudera, DataStax, Dropbox, Groupon, Hulu, MSNBC, Neilsen, Rogers Communications, Rockstar games, SAP, SmugMug, Zappos Insights. Equally importantly, the company has developed a customer-oriented culture. Zendesk enables the fastest way to great customer service. It's not just a motto, it's a way of life at Zendesk. And we love our customers!
In the last six months, the company has delivered tremendous innovation and is now recognized as the leader in cloud-based help desk software. Recent innovations include: integrations with Salesforce.com, SugarCRM and Atlassian JIRA, advanced reporting and analytics with GoodData, Twitter integration, mobile versions for iPad, iPhone, Android and Blackberry, and a new open API for sharing tickets. The NetworkedHelpDesk API allows you to share support tickets across teams, organizations or applications with support from more than two dozen software companies.
Zendesk now has more than 10,000 customers in more than 100 countries worldwide with revenues quadrupling last year. The company also has funding from Benchmark capital, Matrix Partners and Charles River Ventures enabling us to develop a deep bench of technical talent and a superb management team.
I'm tremendously proud of what we've been able to do over the last couple of quarters. And I'm even more excited about all the innovations planned in engineering over the next six months. This is the most fun I've had since the early days of MySQL! This is one heckuva exciting time to be in the software business.
I wrote a guest column for GigaOm on how open source software, cloud and software as a service are helping to bring about the consumerization of IT: namely bringing simplicity where complexity reigned. I cited some examples including New Relic, Box.net and Apple.
Open source has gone a long way toward putting power back in the hands of developers, who can download, install and deploy software without having to go through any kind of convoluted sales or budget approval process. You want MySQL? You can download and install in 15 minutes, and you don’t have to talk to anyone to do it.
Software as a service (SaaS) takes this to an even broader audience, enabling employees to get the kind of lightweight, consumer, self-serve capabilities in their job without even having to run their own servers. Platforms like Amazon AWS, Heroku, Makara, RightScale and others put this same kind of SaaS power in the hands of developers...
My view: ease of use trumps a long feature list any day of the week. There are both techological reasons as well as sociological and economic reasons for why organizations are seeking greater simplicity. Part of this stems from the fact that complex enterprise applications grew beyond the ability of most organizations to successfully adopt.
It seems obvious that given the decreasing cost of storage and computation, there's going to be a significant increase in the volume of data that organizations accumulate over the next 10 years. But the type of data being accumulated may be different from the areas where traditional DBMSs dominated. It's not just about transactions; it's search patterns, on-line behavior, click-thru data, events fired off by smartphones, messages over Twitter & Facebook, log data of various kinds.
If an organization can figure out a better way identify prospects, or deliver more targeted ads, or optimize pricing decisions by analyzing terrabytes of data, they'd be crazy not to. Over the long term, companies that don't develop these capabilities will be at a competitive disadvantage.
As to what the implications are from a technological perspective, that's a whole different can of worms. I'm starting to see adoption of Big Data technologies like Hadoop, HDFS, Cassandra, MongoDB, XML databases, analysis with R, Pentaho, and loads of other technologies. And MySQL continues to play a role here as do other traditional relational databases. Over the next few months, I'm going to dig down deeper with people using these technologies to try and discern the emerging customer patterns.
If you're in this space or using some of these technologies, let me know your thoughts. What volume of data are you dealing with? How many nodes or servers are you using? Are you running on a public cloud, private cloud or hybrid? What technologies did you evaluate? What about traditional DBMSs didn't work for this scenario?
I'm the boards of two companies (Pentaho, Revolution Analytics) that are starting to see a lot of customer traction around Big Data. More and more companies in media, pharma, retail and finance are doing advanced analysis, reporting, graphing, etc with massive data sets. It made me wonder what other areas of the technology stack might evolve with the trend towards Big Data. Obviously, there's new middleware layers like Hadoop and Map Reduce, and we're also seeing the emergence of NoSQL data management layers with Cassandra, MongoDB, MemBase and others. But what about programming languages?
So why don't I have this language yet? Well, partially because programming language craftsmanship is hard. I'm pretty sure I'm not good enough to do it, which is usually my default criteria for saying something is Really Hard.
But I think as well the k3wl languages coming out are coming out of language requirements of the Top 10% crowd. They're the ones good enough to actually write the languages, and they're going to write a language that makes them happy. But then you end up with Scala, and then you end up with this monstrosity, and then you make me cry. A language in which that thing is even possible will never be a candidate as a Journeyman Programming Language.
You know who's going to do it? Someone like Gosling, who set about with the needs of the journeyman programmer in Java. But the state of the art has moved on, and Java just isn't suitable anymore.
Who I would really like to do it is Anders Hejlsberg. I am a very big fan of C#-the-Language. It's just that .Net-the-Ecosystem is so Microsoft-specific and horrific it'll never catch on in the wider world, no matter what Miguel de Icaza thinks.
This got me thinking about the challenge of the current complexity in Big Data systems. Today, you have to be near genius level to build systems on top of Cassandra, Hadoop and the like today. These are powerful tools, but very low-level, equivalent to programming client server applications in assembly language. When it works it's great, but the effort is significant and it's probably beyond the scope of mainstream IT organizations. (That's one reason that Revolution's R product has appeal, but R is a specialized statistical analysis tool, not a general purpose language.)
Could the Big Data complexity be factored out somehow with a new general purpose programming language? No doubt. Having worked with Anders on the creation of Delphi many years back, this is right up his alley. Or maybe we already have a good starting point with Erlang, Scala and Google's Go. Go is particularly interesting having been designed by Rob Pike and Ken Thompson of Bell Labs / Unix fame.
What's been your experience in programming Big Data systems? What do you think's needed? Let me know in the comments below.
Zack Urlocker is an investor, advisor and
board member to several startup software companies in SaaS and Open Source. He
was previously the EVP of Products at MySQL responsible for Engineering and
Marketing. He built the MySQL Enterprise subscription strategy and product
line. MySQL was sold to Sun for $1 billion and is now part of Oracle
Corporation. He is also a marathon runner, blues guitarist and fan of Interactive Fiction.
Last week, Barnes & Noble announced they would cut the price on their wireless Nook eReader, from $259 to $199 ($149 for a new WiFi-only edition.) Many thought this was a good opportunity for the third place contender to gain market share. But within a few hours Amazon beat Barnes & Noble's price by $10, marking down the Kindle 2 to a mere $189.
The price cuts were made as manufacturers of e-readers faced a mounting threat from Apple’s iPad. Even though it is far more expensive than the e-readers, the iPad, which starts at $500, performs a range of functions with a versatile, colorful display that contrasts sharply with the static, monochrome screen of e-book readers. Apple said it sold more than two million iPads in the two months since the tablet’s introduction... Analysts had expected the prices of e-readers would gradually fall because of the natural decline in component costs and the increased profitability of e-books themselves.
The price cuts should add further momentum to what, despite incursions by the iPad, has been a growing market for dedicated e-reading devices. Amazon and its rivals are on pace to sell 6.6 million e-reading devices this year, up from 3.1 million in 2009, according to Forrester.
If Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony et al manage to sell 6 million eReaders this year, that would be impressive growth for a category that has been lackluster to date. Amazon has never broken out sales of it's Kindle line, but by all appearances it's the leading standalone eReader and likely has sold a couple of million units in its three year history.
In comparison, Apple has sold more than 3 million iPads in its first 80 days. And they're expanding into 9 more countries next month. Analysts are predicting that the iPad could sell between 5 and 10 million units this year, which blows Amazon's Kindle out of the water. And unlike Amazon, Apple actually makes money with it's iPad since it's costs are around $260 for the $499 entry level product and margins improve on the higher end units.
But its worth considering a few questions:
Will price cuts making any difference competing against the iPad?
Or does it just increase the burn of a money-losing business?
Why is Apple's iPad business profitable and Amazon's Kindle isn't?
If you could chose to be in either business, which would you choose?
And what does all this have to do with open source?
The key point here is that price is just one part of a disruptive strategy. No doubt, part of the success of MySQL, Red Hat, jBoss, Alfresco, Zimbra, Pentaho, Revolution Analytics et al, comes from delivering 90% of the benefit for 10% of the price of incumbents. The trick is do to do in a manner that is profitable but that incumbents cannot respond to because of their higher cost of operations. (And remember, most open source users don't pay anything!)
I managed to get an "early upgrade" of my iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 4 despite AT&T's best efforts. I've had a couple of days using the new iOS 4 operating system on my 3GS and a couple of hours with the iPhone 4. So here are a few highlights of the initial hands-on experience with more updates on the weekend.
Updated with additional information, video & photos.
Low-res video (VGA resolution):
Here's a gallery of additional photos from the iPhone 4: (Double click to see larger versions.)
Other than AT&T's longstanding inability to deal with demand, the upgrade process is pretty simple. I chased the UPS driver home to get my iPhone today and just plugged into the USB cable to restore my last iPhone 3GS backup. That took about 20 minutes. Applications, data, settings etc were exactly where I left them. However, since I manually manage my MP3 files, it didn't restore those, which is kind of a nuisance. You also need to re-enter email and WiFi passwords, which makes sense. During the upgrade process you can sign up for a 60 day trial of MobileMe, which is tempting if you own an iPad and iPhone. And you also need to re-activate the account by calling a toll-free somewhat-automated AT&T service. My hold time was just over 3 minutes and then it took another few minutes to go through the terms and conditions. In fact, I had to type or say my cell number 3 times, zip code twice and agree to the terms twice. All told it took about 10 minutes. But considering it's AT&T, it could have been worse.
But then a few minutes after syncing, I noticed that not all of my applications were restored. The New York Times, Frotz, Wikipanion, Engadget, Guitar Tab Toolkit and several others apps were missing. Not quite sure why. So I plugged in the USB cable a second time, canceled the backup and suddenly the remaining apps were being restored. That took another 20 minutes. Not sure if I did something wrong here or the iTunes Store was overloaded. But if some of your apps aren't restored initially, don't panic. But if this happens you'll also have to re-arrange the app icons back to how you used to have them.
Better battery life, better screen, better audio, better camera and for those who actually need to talk on their phone, better cellular coverage. Admittedly, it's still AT&T, but I believe the new antennae built into the casing will help. On my 3GS, I've had calls drop 4 or 5 times while driving on 280 (which has a black-hole for cell service near Sand Hill Road.) But so far, so good.
The iPhone 4 is slightly skinnier than it's predecessor, and a bit more squared off, but to me the differences are subtle. Its the same weight and doesn't really feel much thinner, not that that was an issue. If you had a third-party case for your old iPhone it may or may not fit the new one, depending on how snug it was to begin with. My old soft rubberized case seems to hang a bit loose, like pants a size too large, but it's not far off. If you're into design then yes, the iPhone 4 has got a modern-retro cool style. But to me it's not a big deal.
The new screen is better, but again, it's a fairly subtle improvement. However web sites with small fonts, like the mobile version of TechCrunch, are definitely more readable. And even existing built-in apps benefit from the higher res fonts. In side by side comparison, the new screen is sharper and seems to have better contrast, making it easier to read. For news applications, it's almost like reading a printed magazine, albeit a very small, fussy one.
Similarly, performance is a little faster for some apps. For example, Google maps screen refresh is noticeably snappier than before. And in side by side comparisons, for example, updating stories from the New York Times or AllThingsD, the iPhone 4 is consistently faster. Not a lot faster, and not in itself enough to make a huge fuss about, but I'll take it.
The camera, on the other hand, is noticeably improved. I often end up at conferences panels or blues clubs where I don't always have my trusty Canon G9. In these cases, the lighting conditions are never ideal and as a result, the iPhone 3GS camera just doesn't cut it. And in my experience, the 3GS video was completely useless as any volume of live music (say 100 db, which is loud but doesn't require earplugs) gets clipped and distorted by the built-in microphone.
The iPhone 4's camera is much improved. The pictures are high-res (5 mb versus 3) but the real improvement comes from being more sensitive in low light conditions. The iPhone 4 also has a front VGA (640x480) low-res camera used by the FaceTime video conference call app that is also suitable for quick self-portraits with less fumbling around. While the camera isn't perfect, it's miles better than the 3GS and can match low-end point and shoot or Flip video cameras. I've posted two photos in crappy lighting and the iPhone 4 makes a decent job of it.
Sample high-res shot:
Sample low-res VGA shot:
The video is ok in low-light but the result is a very grainy image, almost on par with the latest Flip video camera, but not really comparable to a high-end point and shoot camera such as the Canon G9. But it is definitely much better than the iPhone 3GS and more convenient than carrying an iPhone and a Flip. Here's a quick and dirty use of the low-res VGA video capability:
(My apologies for the guitar playing!)
And some live concert footage at about 100db:
The audio is definitely better than the 3GS, but the picture is very grainy.
Improved Cellular Reception
While there has been some questions and comments about reduced cell reception depending on how you hold the iPhone, I haven't had any problems. (Hint: avoid directly touching the antenna in the lower left corner when you hold the phone.) Still, I put a piece of tape over the lower left corner antenna just to be on the safe side.
In fact, as the video at the top of the post demonstrates, I was able to make continuous calls on several notorious silicon valley dead spots, including Highway 280 near Sand Hill Rd and Highway 17 to Santa Cruz. However, I did lose reception in a tunnel (to be expected), on the Bay Bridge and on rural Highway 9 in Saratoga. But this was still fewer dropped calls than usual.
If you've been frustrated by dropped calls with the 3GS, this improvement alone may be worth the upgrade price.
The speaker is also slightly clearer which is useful if you do conference calls or play music from the speaker (which I do on occasion.)
The new iOS 4 is good on the 3GS but it really rocks on the new hardware. Not only is the multi-tasking quick, but the better hardware makes even existing applications look better and run faster. Hopefully in the weeks to follow we'll see more applications updated to use the new multi-tasking.
Note that the multi-tasking on the iPhone is not the same kind of flat-out full-on multi-tasking you may be used to on a desktop compute. It's really more of an intelligent quick-restore of an application with some limited multi-tasking for maintaining cell connection, playing music, getting notifications etc. On a handset, this seems to work fine. It's not like I need a massive spreadsheet to recalc or some kind of long-running DBMS transactions to go run in separate threads. But we'll see in the fall whether this same model works as well on the iPad.
Nonetheless, the multi-tasking, is a intuitive as you could imagine. Double click the iPhone button below the screen to pull up your recent or running applications. So you don't have to go back through the home screen and scroll through pages of apps when you, say, confirm a calendar appointment in an email while talking on the phone and looking at a map. It's not as good as multiple desktop apps on the screen at once, but the experience works well on the small screen of a smartphone.ns.
Some of the built-in apps are also improved. For example, iPhone email now has a unified in-box and threaded conversations. With a unified in-box, I can now finally start to move off hotmail and over to gmail without having to manually check email in two places.
You can also now run the iBooks application on the iPhone with bookmarks and content synchronized. If you're happy with your 3GS and just want multi-tasking and a unified email inbox with threaded messages, and iBooks, you can get all of that with an upgrade to the iOS 4 platform for free.
Apple has also introduced FaceTime an iPhone4-to-iPhone4 video conference call capability. Unfortunately, it runs only over WiFi. Still, it could be a useful application for those who travel a lot.
Overall, iPhone 4 is an incremental improvement. I am not sure whether I would label it game changing; that depends on how much you use FaceTime, iMovie or other new applications that have yet to be created. But it is certainly a worthwhile upgrade, just to get the improved battery life, camera and cellular reception. But if you do the upgrade, note that it can take about an hour to backup your old phone, restore on the new one and activate the account with AT&T. Don't attempt this if you need to use the new phone in 10 minutes.
If you can get the subsidized price or early upgrade and can live with AT&T, then it's $200 well spent. Otherwise, you may have to wait for Verizon to pick it up next year.
With the iPhone 4, Apple has once again set and raised the bar.
I'll be heading to Prague for the Apache Lucene Eurocon in May where I'll be speaking. Should be a great conference. Hard core developers can get training on Solr and Lucene. The conference is sponsored by Lucid Imagination which offers commercial subscriptions for companies using these technologies.
I'll be speaking on how open source software, cloud computing and big data are disrupting the traditional software industry as we know it today. (For related info, check out David Fishman's excellent blog posting: Data Disrupted.) Prague is a great city and it should be a fun time.
Oracle managed to score a major victory last week at the MySQL Conference by announcing performance gains of 200-360% in the forthcoming version 5.5. This is a tremendous improvement and comes in part due to closer collaboration between what were historically two distinct (and occasionally competitive) groups: the InnoBase team and the MySQL Server team. Bringing the InnoBase team under the direction of the MySQL Server team under Tomas Ullin is a great benefit not only to MySQL developers, but also for MySQL users. No doubt these performance gains are a result of many months of hard work by not only Tomas, but also a good number of folks on both teams including guys like Mikael Ronstrum, Kojstja, Calvin Sun and others.
It seems that in the MySQL 5.5.4 release, several performance bottlenecks that really affected scalability beyond 4 cores have been either eliminated or seriously mitigated. Some of the changes were in MySQL itself, while others are InnoDB specific...
The benchmarks presented that compared MySQL 5.5.4 with 5.1 show substantial improvements in a variety of workloads. And given how many shops are still running MySQL 5.0.xx in production (including us), that means there really is A LOT to look forward too–especially on newer hardware.
I, for one, cannot wait to see what this stuff does for us.Thanks to the MySQL and InnoDB teams for their continued hard work and dedication to making MySQL faster as hardware evolves.
For those who have been skeptical, these results should go a long way towards demonstrating Oracle's commitment to ongoing investment and improvement of MySQL. Who knows, maybe this will help eliminate some of the rhetoric and FUD from the splinter groups in the MySQL community. And of course, Oracle will need to continue to ramp up investment in other areas of MySQL to make good on their promises. But they're off to a better start than anyone could have expected.
I've included some video excerpts from keynote presentations by Oracle VP Edward Screven and from Open Source maven Tim O'Reilly below.
Here's another interesting session from the South by Southwest Interactive conference a few weeks ago... Dharmesh Shah, co-author of the Inbound Marketing book, gave a concise, high-speed presentation on some of the best practices in social media marketing. Here are a couple of video clips from his session:
A lot of the startups I work with, both open source companies and SaaS, are now taking Inbound Marketing more seriously as a way to grow their business, whether it's an open source business, cloud, SaaS or some combination. The reality is it's just not good enough to have a killer product. You need to have a dialog with prospects and make sure that they can find you. The good news, is with products from companies like HubSpot and Marketo, it's much easier to implement these techniques than ever before.
Of course, these techniques are good for larger companies as well as startups. I wrote a guest posting for HubSpot's Inbound Marketing blog on that topic.
Being a bit of a gadget freak, I decided to pick up an iPad on Saturday when they went on sale. My wife and I went over to an Apple store near her father's place in Michigan and while there had been an early morning line up by mid-day you could stroll in and get the model of your choice in under 10 minutes. That's assuming you were willing to go with what they had in stock, which was the slightly more expensive 32 or 64 gig models. While 16 gig is probably fine, I figured more memory is never a bad thing, especially since there's no SD slot. At any rate, what follows is my somewhat rambling review following 3 days of usage. No doubt things will change in the coming weeks, but these are my initial impressions. And for kicks, I'm writing this review from the iPad itself using Typepad's crappy mobile site --hence no formatting or links for now.
When you get your iPad it's fully charged, but you still need to connect to iTunes on a PC or Mac. I'm not sure why this is, but it felt weird. I mean, isn't this supposed to eliminate my use if a laptop? And what if you're a devoted Linux head? No idea. Still, the process worked quickly and getting wifi working and access to the Apple store was simple. While there are 150,000 apps for the iPhone that run on the iPad, the bad news is they look about as ugly as you can get. I mean Java-desktop-app ugly. You can run them in standard iPhone size dead center of the screen against a black background or double pixel, making the app look like some CGA resolution relic blown up on a VGA screen. For games or apps you can't live without that may be fine, but these things are so ugly you're gonna be embarrassed to show them to anyone, especially after paying $500 or more for your iPad. The good news is this is likely a temporary situation and most of the popular iPhone apps are being re-written to take advantage of the larger screen real estate. And native iPad apps are gorgeous.
About the Hardware
The iPad is slightly smaller than the size of a standard magazine and weighs about a pound and a half (under 1kg). It feels pretty sturdy in your hand and is heavier than a Kindle but lighter than just about any laptop or netbook. The screen is absolutely gorgeous, especially when browsing or watching video. That said, you can see every fingerprint smudge. Overall, apps feel fast due to Apples optimized ARM processor called the A4. Battery life is also impressive 12 hours continuous use, with wi-fi on. That's enough to get through a decent day of work, conference or travel and certainly better than the iPhone and most laptops. While I would really like to have a real slide out keyboard, the on-screen version works better than I expected given it's propensity to correct my mistakes. It's especially good in landscape mode. You can also use an optional Bluetooth keyboard or Apple's forthcoming keyboard dock.
There have been some reports on TechCrunch of wi-fi flakiness, and I've seen that at my father-in-law's place, but I've had no problems elsewhere. Update: Here's a link to proposed fixes described by PCMag if you're impacted by these issues.
Out of the starting gate there are more than 3,000 native (e.g. High res) apps for the iPad available on Apple's app store, with new ones coming out daily. While that sounds like a lot (and is certainly more than Palm, Win phone 7, Symbian etc) by iPhone or Android numbers it's still slim pickings. There are some nice apps out there from Apple and others, but I expect it will take a couple of months before we see the depth and breadth that the iPad warrants. Apple's iWork suite (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) sets a high bar at a reasonable price ($10 each). The New York Times, USA Today, NPR and eBay apps are innovative, good looking and free. Wikipanion, also free, is great. If you play guitar, you should buy Tab Toolkit which is awesome; basically an iPad-optimized tab file player that works with standard Guitar-Pro as well as ASCII files. There are tons of games from the latest 3D driving simulators to retro 80's style text adventure via with the truly outstanding Frotz Z-machine interpreter.
The iPad's built-in browser is excellent, so that lessens the need for native apps in some cases. If you don't want to use a dedicated app for viewing the New York Times, just go to the web site. Which is great except if you're offline. Or if the site uses flash. Or if you want multiple tabs. You can have multiple browsers, but for now the iPad is pretty fundamentally single-tasking. So you can only view one site (or app) at a time.
Notably, Apple did not include 5 basic apps from the iPhone: the calculator, voice recorder, compass, stock quotes and weather apps are all missing. You can download equivalent free third party apps, but it's rather perplexing. My hope here is that by summer Apple will provide some form of multi-tasking that enables you to pull up simple applets like this while not totally ruining the simplicity of the user experience. There are some rumors / conspiracy theories about this, but who really knows?
Update: Earlier this week Apple announced multi-tasking will be available in OS 4.0 in the summer on iPhones and in the fall for the iPad.
Best eReader Ever?
I travel a fair amount and always seem to be lugging 3 or more books and half a dozen magazines and newspapers. While I've been jonesing for a Kindle for quite some time, I always came away feeling like the speed of eInk page refreshes were going to drive me nuts. Not to mention the fact that web browsing would be limited. The iPad, on the other hand, has a built-in iBooks reader and also offers a native iPad Kindle app. While these are still closed systems (you have to buy your books from Apple or Amazon respectively) at least you've got two choices. And since Apple's iBook reader supports the open ePub format, you can add third party books from other sources easily. For now the iBook selection of 60,000 titles is a fraction of Amazon's, but both have a fair number of free eBooks from Project Gutenberg. If you're dying to read some out of date public domain Sherlock Holmes, HG Wells or Jane Austen, its all there for the taking. Or if you want something from this century, you can download creative commons Science Fiction from Cory Doctorow who apparently hates the iPad.
I used the GoodReader $0.99 app to load up and view PDF articles from management gurus Peter Drucker and Clayten Christensen as well as some old Mad Magazines from the "Absolutely MAD" DVD. (Yes, it does fold-ins.) So with a little bit of fiddling, it's a very versatile reader.
While the iPad is not perfect, it is pretty cool and depending on what you need, it may or may not do the job for you. It's annoying that it doesn't include some form of multi-tasking, an SD slot or a USB port. A camera might be handy for some folks. My guess is some of these deficiencies will be addressed in the future. But as cool as the iPad is, it's very much a closed system and that takes some getting used to. You don't have access to the underlying system as you would on a regular computer. While that makes for a simpler experience, it can be frustrating. Doing something simple like adding PDFs to the iPad requires working around the system. Luckily third party apps (in this case the aforementioned GoodReader) can help.
For me, the iPad provides an additional tool --an instant-on eReader, browser, email system and media player. But the iPad, like the original Mac, also paints a picture of where computing is heading: a multitude of devices with different form factors that access data, applications and media in the cloud. Five years from now today's Windows laptop experience will be completely obsolete, replaced by iPads, iPhones, Super Kindles, Androids and Courier devices. For developers, this is a great time to dive in and invent that future.
How cool is that?
Update: I have added some formatting, links and updated info based on Apple's announcement of OS 4.0. Unfortunately, TypePad from SixApart still doesn't let you access the full functionality from the iPad itself, so I made these edits in a web browser running Windows. If anyone has a workaround to access the full typepad app from Safari on the iPad let me know. SixApart claims they are working on it, though I see no evidence of that so far.