By now you’ve probably at least heard of Apple’s latest product, the iPad, along with all the crude jokes, criticism, and excitement perpetuated by the media.

I’m in the group that thinks the iPad is just the latest sign that the pace of technological innovation and the way it impacts our mainstream lives is accelerating even more. The iPad is bigger than Apple. Apple just happens to be creating it.

The era we’re entering now arguably started with the iPod, which ultimately paved the way for the iPhone. As amazing as the iPhone is, it’s really just a mini prototype of the future of computing, a future that most of us will live to see in the not-too-distant future.

If you own an iPhone or iPod Touch, you’ll probably agree that when you use it, you don’t feel like you’re “computing.” You don’t have the same experience that you have when sitting at a full computer equipped with a keyboard and mouse. But you are computing. It just feels more natural. Why? Because the touch interface fits our tactile propensities, and the lack of cord doesn’t chain us to static locations like offices and bedrooms. We don’t even have to be indoors to use it.

Before the iPhone, computers had already firmly penetrated our lives, but they had much less mainstream appeal, and they had far less reach. Today, computers neighbor forks and spoons on tables. Computers are everywhere, but we don’t think of them as computers, and for some reason we still call them “phones.”

The iPad very likely represents the next step in the convergence of “mobile” with conventional computing. The increase in the size of the device is symbolic of the fact that mobile technology is expanding into a space previously occupied by conventional computers, and I believe it will ultimately expand into spaces we can’t even see right now.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball provides a great observation of what’s happening:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it.

And I fully expect us to press the gas pedal to the floor. As computers become even easier to use, more people will use them. This has the effect of bringing more ideas “online” than ever before.

Some argue that “tablets have been around and have already failed.” But the iPad is being born in a different time–one marked by unprecedented connectivity and information equity.

The only thing more exciting than the iPad are the breakthroughs that are sure to follow.