Thursday, January 28, 2010

The iPad

tablet-100127-1 All eyes were on Apple yesterday (you know, before they were on that other guy) as Steve Jobs donned his blue jeans and told the world what it wanted. What it wanted was Apple’s near-mythical tablet, the iPad.

I was eager to see it unveiled just to stop the rumors, each insignificant morsel of which has been reported with near-psychotic fervor by the way-too-enthusiastic Apple enthusiast press (“Apple Tablet May Use Phillips Head Screws, Suggests Post-It Found Near Steve Jobs’ Car”). The same press lapped it up when Jobs sat onstage with the thing for twenty minutes, casually browsing the Web and checking his email. I guess when your company rakes in $15.6 billion in three months you can make people watch whatever the hell you want.

Apple’s newest gadget will be in an enviable position when it releases in two months - the latest must-have thing from a company that lately seems unable to fail. What does it bring to the table? Where does it fall short? Is its success inevitable? Put up your feet. Let’s chat a bit.

Just The Facts

The iPad is surrounded by important numbers, which I will get out of the way as quickly as possible because this is the boring part: the screen is 9.7 inches, about the same size as most netbooks, and has a 1024x768 pixel resolution. Unencumbered by a keyboard and some other components it manages to come in at about half an inch thick, and it weighs a pound and a half. It will come in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities.

All models come with the requisite Wi-Fi (802.11n, the fastest incarnation of the standard) and Bluetooth connections, and some models also sport 3G antennas for connection to (for better or worse) AT&T’s cell phone network. Battery life while being used is expected to be about ten hours, and if you never did anything with it ever (an unlikely scenario, one would like to hope) it would hold a charge for an entire month.

Pricing starts at $499 and breaks down as follows:

16GB 32GB 64GB
No 3G


$599 $699
With 3G $629 $729 $829

The 3G data plan costs $15 a month for 250 megabytes of data, and $30 for unlimited data – this is, I believe, pay as you go, with none of the expensive contracts that currently encumber the iPhone.

Home stretch, guys: The iPad also comes with dock – this dock includes a full-size keyboard, further blurring the line between this tablet and a laptop, and the dock also includes a USB port for connection to computers and digital cameras. It will run all current iPod/iPhone apps, either in a small window that matches the display size of those devices, or in a stretched-out fullscreen mode. Finally, it also includes an integrated speaker and microphone, meaning that the Skype app would effectively allow this thing to function as a giant phone.


The iPad As a Computer

tablet-100127-9 The iPad is positioned as Apple’s answer to the netbook, an intermediary between their iPod Touch and iPhone on the low end, and their MacBook laptops on the high end.

Apple doesn’t think much of the netbook experience – you run software intended for standard PCs, but you’re doing it on slow, often low-quality hardware with untenably tiny screens. The devices aren’t without their benefits (portability, battery life, cuteness) and uses, but such is not Apple’s way. Apple would rather design a device specifically for the intended use, and then design software specifically for the device. This means something tailored to easy reading without eyestrain and typing without constantly poking the wrong buttons with my giant fingers, all packed into a device that’s comfortable to have at work and on a plane and in bed.

Unfortunately, there are some computer-y things that the iPad just can’t do. you’re still limited to running only one app at a time – even with the larger screen and the beefier processor, multitasking is a no-go. Adobe Flash, long a fixture of the Web, is a no-show, just as on the iPhone and iPod Touch. One of the more glaring flaws is the continued absence of a Microsoft Office app.

The iWork app Apple announced for the iPad is all well and good, but the business world (and, to a large extent, the academic world, in which Apple carries a good deal more weight) turns on the Word, Excel and PowerPoint trifecta. Google Apps or the upcoming Microsoft Office Web Apps may be enough to get on with, but it’ll be hard to say before people actually have the tablets in hand.

The iPad as a Multimedia Hub

tablet-100127-20 All work and no play etc. etc. – can it also handle your music and video libraries as well as a computer? Sure, depending on how much space your music and video libraries take up. The iPad is descended from the iPod, and as such it’s going to give you the same music listening and video watching experience you’ve become familiar with over the years. The integrated speaker, which is reportedly above-average for a device of this size, will even make it a better communal experience than the shrill, tinny speaker crammed into current iPods and iPhones.

The downside in this case is probably the device’s larger size – if I’m on the road I’ll probably have my headphones plugged into my iPhone, and if I’m home I’ll probably have them plugged into my laptop – the iPad might be a good music player, but I’ve already got a couple of those.

Where the iPad does better is its iTunes app, which is more like its Mac and PC counterpart than it is the version that runs on the iPod Touch. Purchasing and renting movies and music looks to be pretty seamless, and footage of Star Trek and Up running on the device make the case for the iPad as a gorgeous portable movie player.

The iPad As an E-Reader


This is the single most compelling case for the iPad.

I was talking with Rob during Apple’s conference, and I showed him shots of the iPad running the New York Times’ iPad-specific reader application. He declared it a death blow for print media. I have to say, if this thing catches on, I’m inclined to agree.

I can actually see reading stuff on the iPad, which is not something I’ve ever been able to say of uncomfortable-to-lie-with laptops or the underwhelming black-and-white LCD of Amazon’s Kindle. The iPad can be held as comfortably as most books, but you get the embedded videos and picture galleries and links you’d get if you were reading it on a computer. Let’s just hope the Times and other outlets are going to be smart enough to charge for their iPad apps, or they won’t be around for long enough for people to read anything.

tablet-100127-11 The other potential win for the iPad where the printed word is concerned is iBooks (not to be confused with the other iBook), an online bookstore with content fed to it by publishers (five at present: HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette Book Group). The model is the iTunes store, so the assumption is that as (if?) the service gains steam, more publishers will ink deals with Apple to make their publications available.

As with the Times app, I can actually see reading on the iPad. No, the tablet is not going to replace the book overnight. However, the digital music revolution has shown us that a new way of doing things doesn’t have to replicate the old way exactly, it just has to be good enough in the right areas. More than the Kindle, perhaps even more than Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the iPad (backed by the established infrastructure of the iTunes store) looks poised to blaze a trail toward digital books.

The iPad As a Gaming System

asphalt_5_350 People apparently play video games on their iPhones. Given the sub-par selection of fart-themed games and the fact that the iPhone gets about half an hour of battery life while gaming, I’ve never really experienced this phenomenon myself.

The success of gaming on Apple’s portable devices has been entirely accidental, and Apple still doesn’t really know what to do with this unexpected windfall. As a result, games on the iPad look like giant versions of games on the iPod Touch.

Unless someone can use the multi-touch capabilities and larger screen to greater effect, gaming on the iPad is going to be little more than the mildly entertaining distraction that it is currently. This was the most underwhelming part of Apple’s presentation, and they didn’t dwell on it long.

The iPad As an Imperfect Device, Developed By Mortal Men Doomed to Die


Yes, this is an interesting device, but there are pitfalls. Apple’s App Store processes have drawn much industry ire, and they’ll keep just as tight a rein on iPad software. Its Safari browser lacks support for Flash, which is such an integral part of the Internet’s DNA that I’m surprised it doesn’t render the thing useless. iTunes, as the near-exclusive provider of digital media to the iPad, will sink its hooks further into you, DRM and all. And that’s just what we know is wrong with it.

Moving into the land of speculation: based on Apple’s past, this first revision of the product will probably have Problems. Remember the super-hot, super-noisy first generation Intel MacBooks? How about the first generation iPod, which only connected to Macs and was sort of primitive to boot? Or the near-unusable initial release of OS X? Apple likes to get revolutionary products out the door before its competitors can almost as much as it likes to revise those products six months down the road to fix all the first version’s problems.

As with any Apple product, I’m going to recommend that smart people wait for the second version, and that smart and patient people wait for the third. It’s just the way these things work.

Conclusions What do I think about the iPad? In a nutshell, slightly underwhelmed, but cautiously optimistic. It’s a product with tremendous potential, but it’s also just a larger version of something that has existed for awhile. Apple’s legion of dedicated adherents guarantees the product a niche, but it remains to be seen whether it will turn the world on its head as prophesied.

Its biggest obstacle is convincing people that they need another device. People were hoping the iPad could replace both their computer and possibly their iPods while on the road, but it’s too large to do the latter and it’s not flexible enough to do the former. With so much overlap, the product as-is seems targeted toward gadget fiends and few others.

Even given that, good developers with good apps may yet be able to make something exciting out of the iPad. Ask me again in six months, and I can tell you with more certainty whether you want this thing or not.

What do you think? As always, the comments section is just one or two scrolls down from here.