I like to think this whole thing all began back in 2007 when Apple introduced new iMacs and iLife and iWork 08. At the time, iPhone was a brand spanking new 2G device that still cost several hundred dollars and had a top capacity of 8 gigabytes. Already, though, people couldn’t get enough. When Steve Jobs unveiled the aluminum redesign of the iMac (the first actual external redesign since Apple had introduced Intel Macs), they opened up a Q&A (in what was a very non-Apple move). Someone asked whether iPhone’s multitouch was going to find its way into the iMac at some point. Apple’s answer was that touch displays in devices larger than phones was still a research project and that they didn’t think they could do anything great with it at the time.
Fast forward a few months to the next quarterly conference call. Netbooks are just starting to turn some heads (a $300 laptop will do that to you), and Apple was asked if they planned to venture into netbook territory. Their answer: “we don’t know how to make a sub-$500 computer that isn’t a piece of junk.”
Months pass, and speculation builds as Apple continues gradually evolving OS X and the iPhone platforms. Mobile OS X starts to dominate the iPod line of products. Leopard is released to great reviews. iPhone 3G comes out. Snow Leopard is announced as a break away from typical OS X releases which add features, to focus instead on improving the codebase and performance in general (in some cases, using lessons learned from making things work on iPhone).
People are starting to grow antsy around the summer of 09. A new product needs to come along, people say. And rumors start to brew (again) that Apple is working on a tablet device.
Finally, it’s here, in the form of the iPad.
iPad has been very successful so far, having sold 300,000 units initially (suck it, first gen iPhone!). Pundits from all over have been weighing in on what iPad means for the industry, with opinions ranging from “this is a game changer” to “yawn, this is uninspiring and anyone who says it’s great is just drinking the kool aid.”
Now that I’ve had a chance to play with my own, I can definitively say that what has been introduced in iPad is going to be a major paradigm shift for computing, the likes of which we haven’t seen since we started moving from command line interfaces to GUI based interfaces. And the future is fantastic.
Holding the iPad in your hand, the first thing you’re going to notice is that it’s solid and almost seems heavy. Granted, it weighs a mere 1.5 pounds, but in this small of a form factor, it is quite dense, and might take you by surprise initially. I personally like a small device that is heavy. It shows that it has some material to it, and it feels solid, and I can rest assured that it’s not going to fall apart. The exterior consists mainly of aluminum and glass. It has a very simple but elegant look to it. Really, there isn’t much to it that comes to your attention. After all, it’s a giant screen. The real magic is going to come from the software.
One of the first things I said when I saw pictures of iPad was “holy crap, that’s a huge bezel!” While it is indeed bigger than perhaps what you might be used to, it doesn’t take long at all to get used to, and it seems quite natural. And it makes it look like a beautiful photo frame when you have it sitting around.
Once you’ve turned iPad on (and synced it up), you’ll feel right at home with a the familiar Mobile OS X interface. A few tweaks have been made, though. The home screen icons are a lot more spread out. During the keynote, I found this to seem like a very banal progression from before. However, the space proves to be welcome. With iPhone, every pixel needs to be used. With iPad, you have a little wiggle room, and you can breathe a little with the whitespace, and Apple has made use of this.
On the note of tweaks, I’ve found that iPad is much more flexible about how it lets you rotate the device. iPad compatible programs now let you rotate to four different orientations (two different portraits, two different landscape views), so you no longer feel like you’re trying to accommodate what is ultimately a software limitation. Another welcome addition is the switch that locks orientation (similar to the switch which silences iPhone). You’ll find this especially handy if you want to lay down while using the device and not worry about it trying to be smart and adjust orientation for you.
Note that you will find yourself frequently looking to wipe the screen off; it gets smudgy. iPhone wasn’t so bad because the act of sticking it in your pocket and subsequently taking it back out does the trick. Not as easy to pull off with iPad.
In other annoying things about iPad, I found that it will only charge in higher voltage USB plugs. No problem for most Macs which have good USB ports, but some PC users might discover the inferiority of their USB ports. I was disappointed myself upon learning that my Apple Cinema Display’s USB ports don’t deliver enough juice. Come on, Apple!
[just] a big iPod Touch?
My biggest pet peeve when I was hearing people try to claim that iPad isn’t a clever device is the “It’s just a big iPod Touch” claim. If you never bothered to turn the device on, then yes, this might be a valid claim. But once you actually start to use the software designed to run on iPad, you’ll see that this claim holds about as much water as saying “a swimming pool is just a giant bathtub” (no water pun intended there, and yes, I’m aware that wasn’t a pun, but I forget the word that describes what that is). Having a screen with more pixels than your average netbook makes all the difference in the world. It is THE difference. It is the difference between this being more like a mobile phone and being more like a computer. And iPad is, by all respects, a portable computer. It just has a reinvented OS interface.
To really understand how major this device is, you need to hold one in your hand. You need to sit down in a comfortable couch, curl up and pull out an iPad and just start surfing. I remember one day sitting in English class in high school and my English teacher said to the class that computers weren’t going to replace books for reading, because there is simply no substitute for holding that paper in your hand. When I first got a Kindle in the fall, I realized what he meant there (not to say that Kindle is necessarily a paper replacement). There’s this certain subtle difference between reading something on a screen and holding it in your hand (even if you are holding a screen in your hand). The gentle movements you make with your hands to get comfy, the ability to set it down on your lap and ponder about something for a moment, it’s all there when you have a screen in your hands. Kindle brought that to text reading, and now Apple one-upped the hell out of them and basically did the same thing with the whole computing experience. That is the magic Johnny Ive is talking about when you suspected he might have been dropping acid with Steve Jobs before doing that video on iPad. Holding the interface in your hands seems like such a simple modification, but it it revolutionary. Believe me when I say that. Or, if you don’t want to take my word for it, go buy an iPad and see for yourself.
All of the apps that come with the iPad were completely rewritten to take advantage of iPad’s big screen. Two-paned interfaces dominate now. Panels and palettes can pop up in an overlay like fashion instead of requiring the user to go to a whole new screen. We can have larger (and now extensible) context menus. And the apps are all very flexible, in that you can rotate them and be in another orientation. Whatever works for you.
I was super impressed with the YouTube app. Maybe it’s the issues I have with YouTube’s app on my iPhone (anyone else having the issue where videos won’t buffer worth a crap, or sometimes they buffer to 50% then just stop buffering?), but YouTube on iPad is an absolute joy to use (update: I was having issues with videos taking too long to load this evening). Videos load quickly. Those annoying overlay ads are not present (at least for now). Transitions are nice and smooth. It is a very Mac-like experience of a popular Web 2.0 web site, and if you are a hardcore YouTube video watcher, you’re in for a real treat.
Mail is also great. I love Mail for iPhone, but Mail for iPad really gives the full desktop experience with a beautiful touch interface. Granted, oodles of OS X Mail’s features are absent from the iPad version (like rules), but Apple is never one to throw the kitchen sink in when they are reinventing something (remember iMovie ’08?). I’m still annoyed by the lack of a unified inbox, but according to a message from Steve Jobs himself, a unified inbox is coming soon (probably in the impending iPhone OS 4.0, which Apple is amazingly going to announce on Thursday).
The Calendar app is also quite beautiful. Living in an Outlook world (and hating it), I love using the Apple calendar tools whenever possible. They are reasonably full featured for the most common tasks I do, and they do what they do beautifully. Enough said there.
But some of the coolest apps to come are living in the App Store. There you’ll find such gems as the Netflix for iPad app (which admittedly is a little unstable for me, but is looking very promising), Omni’s apps (more on those later) and Apple’s iWork suite of apps.
Apple has managed to put full blown office productivity apps on the iPad. I haven’t dabbled in them a ton, but they look very much full featured, and they do all of the things they do with public APIs, which means that we can be expecting some truly breathtakingly functional iPad apps in the future.
Like OmniGraffle, Omni’s award winning diagramming software (which I was recently featured using in their blog!). I will happily admit that Omni is my very favorite software company, and when I read soon after iPad’s announcement that they were going to change their plans in a huge way and develop iPad versions of all of their apps, I was ecstatic. OmniGraffle for iPad isn’t cheap at $50, but it looks fantastic, though it could possibly take some getting used to. I found myself easily making diagrams with it, and drawing things on screen. Changing attributes is a tiny bit clumsy, but I’ll give Omni credit where credit is due. I don’t think they got an iPad unit before launch, so they did all of their development using simulators and fake iPad prototypes. The design process was truly fascinating, but it does mean the 1.0 release was bound to have its quirks. And yes, there are a few performance issues here and there, and a few things are kind of clumsy to do, but Omni developed this whole app in under 60 days, and I applaud them for pulling that off. I’m going to be reserved in rating OmniGraffle until I see them doing some bug fixes, though.
Omni also released another app, OmniGraphSketcher, for iPad at launch, but I haven’t purchased it yet (nor did I purchase the desktop version yet). I don’t find myself making graphs too awfully often anymore.
Overall, iPad apps are fantastic (and they earn the higher price they demand), but I think they are being held back a lot by Apple’s SDK. Right now they can’t talk to each other very effectively. In OS X, you have a lot more freedom to give your apps the ability to work with each other, whether it be through Services, Growl, or just having background apps, but in iPhone OS, you don’t get that luxury (yet). A lot of people mumble about how they want multitasking, but that’s not quite exactly what I want. We aren’t working with a window based OS, and multitasking as others think of it just doesn’t fully make sense. Right now if you want to make an app that can live in its own world happily, you’re in business, because that’s exactly what Apple’s SDK will let you do. But if you want to do something more, like stream Pandora music and let the user control the music while using a Twitter app, you are pretty much out of luck. We’ll see how much that changes come OS 4.0.
Those pesky missing features
Multitasking aside, there are two things people just won’t stop complaining about, and those are iPad’s lack of a camera and lack of Flash support. And if iPad had a camera, people would probably complain that the camera didn’t have flash. But I digress.
I was rather surprised to see the camera being omitted from iPad. I haven’t heard any rumors so far that there was a place on the circuit board to accommodate a camera yet, but I thought this might be more of a “go all out” release for Apple, and they’d throw that in. Granted, I’m not sure what the camera would have been used for. If it’s a back facing camera, you’ll look like a moron using it to take pictures. If it’s a front facing camera, it’s there for videoconferencing, and as much as people would like to say they are using their iSights all the time, they aren’t. For well over 90% of the users, the camera would have been used once when the user was going through all the features and Photo Booth would have been tried out, then the camera would have been left idle. It would have added unnecessary cost to production, and I’m okay with it being gone, but I wouldn’t fight against bringing one on board next time around (cue the people who think Apple’s omitting features in a conspiracy in order to get you to buy two iPads).
I honestly don’t know why anyone was surprised or outraged at lack of Flash support. It’s completely in line with Apple’s behavior since iPhone was released. Flash as we know it today is a way to put video content on the web. If you remember the 90s, Flash wasn’t designed for that at all, and it’s hardly optimized for it (it was a vector graphics program designed to minimize file size for back when we were on dial up connections). The fact that Flash is a de facto standard now is just the result of Flash being a commonly installed plugin, so web developers used it to deliver video.
Now, Flash is really ready to die. Nobody really likes it, we have open standards that replace it, but nobody wants to take that plunge because everyone’s already using Flash, and there was no real incentive to stop using it. iPhone kind of started putting pressure on companies to make non-Flash video available, but that was primarily done through native apps. But Flash is still ready to die; it just lives on as this nasty de facto standard. And Adobe sits around writing Flash for a platform it knows Apple won’t approve, while Windows Mobile and Android sit there with open arms as they are ignored by Adobe, and Adobe keeps whining that Apple is being all closed and proprietary and won’t support Adobe’s closed and proprietary web plugin. Adobe, could you call the waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaambulance please?
Apple just said “no” to Flash. And Apple is powerful enough now that they can pull that off. This wouldn’t have worked back in the 90s, of course, but people follow Apple. And though people have been complaining that iPad is going to bring a sub-par internet experience without Flash support, I give three points:
1. I have yet to see the little “plugin icon” telling me that my lack of Flash is causing me to miss out. I’m not making any attempt to avoid Flash sites; I am just engaging in my normal Web habits.
2. The JooJoo has a larger screen than iPad and has Flash support, and nobody’s lining up to buy one of those.
3. A shit ton of major web sites are starting to open up iPad support, freeing themselves from Flash.
You have to remember, too, that Flash was never made for mobile. Running movies would probably work okay (though they’d be a battery drain), but Flash brings no advantage to movies (unless you count enforced ads as an advantage). In fact, scrubbing through video usually doesn’t work all that well in Flash. And the other stuff Flash is good at (namely, doing stuff that is a little more programmatic or animation-rich than strict HTML based stuff would permit) can be accomplished better with native apps. And you then wouldn’t have to worry about how iPhone OS should handle hover events, or how iPhone OS is somehow going to constantly keep a full keyboard available (because Flash applets can respond to any number of different keys, and there’s no way to have the context to know which keys the user should be able to press). In short, there’s no way to make Flash a good user experience on a touch-based interface. And it’s not going to be around that much longer anyway, so Apple just put the squeeze on its oxygen tube.
The Bottom Line
The question on many people’s minds right now is “should I buy one?” All the media pundits are saying “wait.” I don’t know why they seem to want you to wait. What is there to wait for? iPad is mostly software, so it’ll likely see at least a few years of major OS updates for little cost. Do you really want a camera? If you do, then I suppose you should wait, or buy a JooJoo.
The other question on people’s minds is “will this replace my laptop?” And my answer for most casual users is “mostly.”
You’re a casual user if the following pretty much describes the extent of what you use a computer for:
•occasional paper writing
The iPad will do all of those things great, and will do tons more very well, and I bet you’d probably find your laptop spending more and more of its time unused. But for others who are using their laptops to do more, like advanced content creation, programming, installing multiple OSes and the like, iPad isn’t going to cast your main computer to a world of obsolescence. But it is going to give your computer a real break, and you might even find your next main computer being a desktop again instead of a laptop, because your portable computing needs are met so well by iPad.
In short, if you want to buy one, buy one! But I recommend going to an Apple Store and playing with one first. If you don’t live near an Apple store, you can play with mine. But I live near an Apple Store, so if you could play with mine, you could just drive to the Apple Store anyway. Whatevs. And even if you are pretty happy with what it is capable of but wish it could do a thing or two more (those two things not being photography or Flash videos online), don’t torture yourself. I believe some serious new features are coming in software, and there’s likely an app there to do just about anything you need it to do.
Other final concerns
Some are concerned that iPad is all about consumption of media. And it is really good at that, and that’s what most of the bundled apps help you do. But iPad is also going to prove to be a great way to create, too. Just watch and see what cool apps get made.
Cory Doctorow was bitching about how iPad is locking you in a lot. Cory, quit being a buzz kill. Sure, I’d love to see the App Store not be as draconian, but I also care about user experience a lot. And Apple has nailed the user experience thing. Most free software out there really emits a huge “design by committee” or “design by programmer who doesn’t care whether it works well, just as long as you can get it to work.” Today I heard that Ubuntu is going to offer syncing with one’s phone. Hmm, that sounds like a good idea. Oh, wait, MobileMe’s been doing that since 2007 (well, later 2007; it didn’t exactly hit the ground running).
But Cory has a point, and that is that tinkering shouldn’t be underestimated. The iPad isn’t going to be the scene of tinkering, though. Tinkering is more for the main desktop computer. iPad is meant to be super refined; a computer that hides implementation details from the user very well. Don’t whine that this is at odds with the spirit of tinkering, though. Many people don’t want to tinker. As much as I love tinkering, there are times when I’d rather not. Sometimes I’d rather just do something, and not be tinkering. iPad is conducive to this.