John Topley’s Weblog

The Apple iPad

A picture of the Apple iPad

I've been following the Web’s reaction to last week’s Apple iPad unveiling with great interest. It’s clear that this was no iPhone announcement, meeting with near universal acclaim. From watching the video of the event the applause seemed subdued in parts and any talk of game-changing was not unanimous. The long-awaited Apple tablet didn’t live up to the hype, but given the level the bar was at exactly because of that iPhone keynote a mere three years ago, it probably never could.

Before I weigh in with my own thoughts on the iPad, I recommend that you read the opinions of these four pundits if you haven’t already, because I won’t be going over ground that they've already covered superbly. They are Stephens Fry and Frank, John Gruber and Alex Paine.

A Special Event

Apple did was what Apple always do at these special events. They sent out an invitation and then talked with a singular focus about the product that the event was introducing. There were no distractions such as announcing iPhone OS 4.0 or new revisions of the MacBook Air, or anything else that would obscure the main message. I don’t know why some people worked themselves into a frenzy expecting otherwise.

That Name

I really thought it was going to be named Canvas, given that the event invitation showed a canvas. The only problem was that I just couldn’t see how the i prefix was going to fit in with that, because iCanvas just doesn’t work.

I still haven’t got used to the name iPad. Aside from the often mentioned feminine sanitary product connotations, it sounds too similar to iPod, or even iPAQ (remember those?) In fact, Jobs even mistakenly called the iPad an iPod at one point in the keynote. In common with Apple, I cannot think of a better iSomething name though.

First Impressions

Unsurprisingly the iPad hardware itself is up to Apple’s usual slick standards and follows the recent trends such as a longer life sealed-in battery and what’s probably unibody construction, although I've haven’t seen official confirmation of that. External controls and apertures are typically minimal, although it’s easy to envisage that a future revision will at least add a forward-facing camera with companion iChat and Photo Booth applications.

The iPad looks like it’s portable within the bounds of the home. I can imagine having one powered on lying around the house, ready to be picked up for instant Internet access or entertainment. It’s a much more convenient way to get online than going upstairs to turn the Mac or PC on and having to wait for it to boot up and log in. Google’s forthcoming ChromeOS is designed to address the same problem, with Google aiming for a switch-on to online time of as little as six seconds.

If I had an iPad then I think I'd take it on holiday to relieve boredom during the flight, but I probably wouldn’t take it on my commute to work every day. An iPhone is sufficiently compact and capable for that.

Watching the promo video I was struck by how much the iPad really does look like a device from the future. It wouldn’t look out of place on the bridge of the starship Enterprise or the USS Discovery on its way to Jupiter. When the iPad is docked with a hardware keyboard it reminds me of the trail blazing Xerox Alto from 1973, because both have the rigorously logical yet seldom imitated portrait display orientation:

A comparison of the Xerox Alto and the Apple iPad with keyboard dock accessory

When I first saw the iPad home screen I thought it looked strangely sparse and kind of goofy. The icons are really spread out in a similar fashion to how they are if you dial up the desktop icon grid spacing on Mac OS X. I've come to realise that this is simply because I'm so used to the iPhone with its densely packed together icons. The iPad Dock down at the bottom of the screen looks like it could easily accommodate eight icons instead of four—I don’t know if that’s possible. I also don’t know if it enforces the grid layout or if you can go free form and drag icons to where you like. I suspect the grid is enforced.

A Simpler Model Of Computing

One of the most striking (apparent) omissions of the iPad is that it doesn’t support multiple user accounts. At first I thought this was a potential deal-breaker for my future ownership of the device. Then with a little help from some of the pundits linked to earlier I realised that the iPad is really all about a simpler model of computing. This is a device that attempts to distill the tasks that most people use their computers for to a bare essence, with all other distractions removed.

The lack of multiple user accounts and multitasking of App Store applications are not technical limitations, for OS X is easily powerful enough to do both and obviously does so in its Mac OS X variant. These are very deliberate design constraints put in place for the iPad.

Supporting multiple users implies a way of identifying those users and securing their personal data. Using biometrics is probably too expensive, so that means having to use passwords, which introduces complexity around setting, remembering, entering and resetting them and also around terminology—does the phrase Log In really have a place in the modern world?

Multitasking of App Store applications might come to the iPad and the iPhone eventually, probably with advances in battery technology. In case you haven’t noticed by now, Apple like to take their time to get features right, the prime example being the delay in bringing Copy and Paste to the iPhone. Multitasking isn’t a now or never proposition because it can easily be added in a future operating system update.

Your Only Computer?

One obvious question about the iPad that needs addressing is whether it’s intended to be a primary or a secondary computing device. It feels to me like Apple are hedging their bets a little on this one.

The iPad is being pitched as the best way to surf the Web, use email, view photos etc. If you just want a computing appliance for straightforward Web access and content consumption then why would you need another, general-purpose computer? Yet the keynote mentioned USB syncing and backup to a Mac or a PC. Also, as far as I'm aware the iPad is like the iPhone in so much as it is unable to download and install its own operating system updates i.e. you have to do that in concert with a connected desktop or laptop computer.

Undoubtedly if you are a consumer who already has a Mac or a PC then Apple will be perfectly happy to sell you an iPad as well, but it’s when it strays into companion device territory that the case for its existence becomes weaker and you wonder if it might be a luxury too far.

I'm also not clear on what the business usage angle is for the iPad. Apple clearly don’t see it as a consumer-only gadget because part of the introduction was dedicated to a reimagining of the iWork suite and rather impressive it was too. However, how do you hook up your iPad to a projector to share your whizzy Keynote presentation with your colleagues and how do you print stuff? It looks like Wi-Fi printing is the only option.

Having said all that, I can see the iPad being a success in certain vertical markets. It’s not hard to imagine a sales force going out and wowing customers by being equipped with iPads that showcase product videos and that run internally-developed sales and data collection software.

Will It Sell?

I think as bets go it’s a fairly safe one, so I do actually think that the iPad is going to be the first commercially successful computer with a tablet form factor. The price is very competitive and Apple kit generally seems to be perceived as desirable amongst the populace at large and is still flying off the shelves. Come March it’s going to be hard to get your hands on a demo iPad in an Apple store.

The iPad has been accused of simply being a bigger iPhone, but I can think of worse ways in which it could have turned out. An adapted laptop running Windows 7, for example. It seems obvious to me in retrospect that the iPad’s technology was going to be an evolution rather than a revolution. Apple were never going to throw away their substantial investment in the technology behind the iPhone revolution. From multi-touch, to the App Store, they were going to build on those successful foundations. That’s a two-way process too, because if Apple are able to put the iPad’s new A4 system-on-a-chip or future derivative into the iPhone then the other mobile phone manufacturers will fall even further behind because none of them are capable of designing or manufacturing their own custom silicon. Creating CPUs for mobile devices is now a core competency at Apple.

In spite of its limitations I think the iPad will succeed, because there are still whole swathes of people who don’t yet have computers or Internet access, including most of my relatives. I would have no hesitation in recommending an iPad to them as an easy way to get online and join the digitally literate. I would make that recommendation with a big smile because I would know that for a change I wouldn’t have to serve as unpaid front-line technical support for a new toy that’s more complicated and capable than its owners need it to be.

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This is a device that attempts to distill the tasks that most people use their computers for to a bare essence, with all other distractions removed.


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