10 Feb, 2010
My thoughts on the iPad
It’s been 2 weeks since Apple announced the iPad, and there’s no shortage of commentary on the upcoming device. I’ve read, and thought about, all the criticisms. Most are missing the point.
It’s not supposed to be a netbook (or a laptop)
Most of the criticisms I’ve read center on the fact the iPad isn’t a netbook or a Macbook in tablet form. Those critics are correct – but miss the point entirely. The iPad isn’t supposed to be a netbook or full-blown laptop in tablet form. Tablet computers have existed for many years, yet none have gained much traction due mostly to the fact the interfaces have been after-thoughts – a set of poorly executed tools bolted on to a desktop operating system. Here’s an excerpt from a review of a current tablet PC running Windows 7:
Windows just doesn’t seem at home when squeezed into this 1.8-pound slab, with a touch-sensitive screen that is 8.9 inches on the diagonal. It’s sluggish, and the controls aren’t adapted to the size of the screen or the fact that there’s no real keyboard or mouse.
On-screen keyboards kept popping up in the wrong places, blocking the fields where I wanted to enter text and the buttons I wanted to push. I struggled to hit the little “x” in the corner of the window to close it, so I had to fall back on guiding the mouse cursor with a small touch pad that’s built into the tablet’s frame.
The poor current state of tablet computers is exactly why Apple didn’t release a Macbook in tablet form, instead opting for a larger enhanced version of the iPhone/iPod Touch user interface. The old way of doing things doesn’t translate well to a touchscreen tablet.
The computer as an appliance – a paradigm shift
Long-time computer geeks are throwing fits and dismissing the iPad because it’s not a general purpose computer that can do whatever they want. Many of these same people slammed Tivo (and other DVRs) because, while they are essentially a full-blown computer, they do only a couple very specialized tasks. The geeks of the world wanted the ability to make their Tivo run ANY program. They wanted a full-blown computer and the operating system to go with it. The rest of the world, however, (including THIS geek) just wanted something that works. I love my Tivo. I never have to worry about it. It does a few very specific tasks, and it does them well. That’s exactly the experience Apple is aiming for with the iPad.
The iPad is intended to be a web browsing, email, and e-book reader, with the ability to add a wide variety of functionality through the App Store. The main difference between this model and a full-blown laptop (or netbook) is that the entire process is simple and requires no technical knowledge whatsoever. You don’t need to know where your downloaded file went, double-click it, then jump through a series of hoops to get it installed. Tap the install button and you’re done. When you want to run an app, just tap its icon.
Mike Monteiro of Mule Design Studio put it this way:
The iPad isn’t the future of computing; it’s a replacement for computing.
It’s the payoff to all the work done by multiple industries over the last 20–30 years. It’s the subtraction of 20lbs of textbooks in my son’s backpack, and the device I finally feel comfortable buying my parents.
Joel Johnson has this to say:
Nerds! You’re not smarter or better than the people who just want to use your creations for their own purpose. You want it both ways: to be able to complain about the incompetency of your family when you’re asked to help them work on their computers, but to swing around the half-understood ideas of dead authors when a company actually decides to build a computer that doesn’t crumble to dust as a matter of course.
Finally, Steven F says:
And to that dramatically greater number of people, what do you think is more important? An easy-to-use, crash-proof device? Or a massively complex tangle of toolbars, menus, and windows because that’s what props up an entrenched software oligarchy?
Fellow Old Worlders, I hate to tell you this: we are a minority. The question is not “will the desktop metaphor go away?” The question is “why has it taken this long for the desktop metaphor to go away?”
Great for e-books (the e-ink myth)
The iPad’s large full color screen makes it an ideal e-book reader, particularly for chart and diagram filled textbooks, magazines, and newspapers. No other e-reader display comes close when it comes to displaying graphics. Competitors, like the Kindle DX, use a technology known as e-ink, which is said to be much easier on the eyes. I don’t doubt that claim, but I very much doubt how many people will notice a difference in real-world use. If you’re the type to read 3-4 full length novels a month, perhaps a dedicated e-ink reader like the Kindle is your best bet. For the rest of us, a display like that of the iPad is great.
I keep hearing about potential eye strain with the iPad because it uses an LCD screen. I stare at my LCD screen all day long at work and I’m able to read long documents (and websites) without issue. The majority of people using an iPad should have similar success. While e-ink may be easier to read for long periods, I don’t think an LCD screen is unusable by any means. For me, the ability to display crisp graphics and full color far outweigh the loss of e-ink. (Color e-ink prototypes were shown recently at the Consumer Electronics Show, and in each case they underwhelmed.)
The potential of the iPad for the education market is huge. Teachers are already finding innovative ways to incorporate the iPod Touch (and iPhone) into the classroom, and developers have provided a host of educational apps. The iPad opens things up even more, particularly when it comes to digital textbooks.
Untapped potential for apps
The added screen real-estate of the iPad gives iPhone/iPod Touch developers the ability to take their apps to new heights. No longer constrained by a small screen and comparatively slow processor, developers are now free to make the apps they’ve no-doubt wanted to all along.
Joe Hewitt had quite a bit to say on this topic. Joe was one of the earliest developers of the Firefox web browser and is probably best known for creating the Facebook for iPhone app. Here are a few of his thoughts on the iPad:
While the rumor mill was churning with all kinds of crazy possibilities for the Apple tablet, I mostly rolled my eyes, because I felt strongly that all Apple needed to do to revolutionize computing was simply to make an iPhone with a large screen. Anyone who feels underwhelmed by that doesn’t understand how much of the iPhone OS’s potential is still untapped.
So, in the end, what it comes down to is that iPad offers new metaphors that will let users engage with their computers with dramatically less friction. That gives me, as a developer, a sense of power and potency and creativity like no other. It makes the software market feel wide open again, like no one’s hegemony is safe. How anyone can feel underwhelmed by that is beyond me.
I believe the iPad has the potential to be the device that finally breaks down the wall between those who understand technology and those who don’t. The iPad will be embraced by those in my parents generation, as well as Gen-Xers who want a lightweight email and web browsing device that’s not as cramped as a smart phone. It’ll supplement full-blown laptops and desktops for many, and can be a primary computing device for others. It’ll evolve over time, perhaps adding a camera for video conferencing (although I’m not sure I’d want people staring up my nostrils when I’m talking to them, which seems inevitable given how you’re likely to hold the device), and will become a specialized computing appliance for the rest of us. You won’t pry my Macbook Pro from me any time soon, but when given a choice what to bring on vacation or down to the corner coffee shop, I’ll take an iPad every time.