On the Apple iPad

On Wednesday, Apple finally unveiled their long-awaited, oft-rumoured Moses Tablet iPad. And Lo, the Fanboys Rejoiced.

If You’re Going to Do Something, Do It Well.

At least, that’s what I think Apple’s motto is these days, even if it failed a couple of times in the past. Recently though they’ve had a string of hits, and one can’t help but be drawn into that myth. The iPad has to live up to this.

But: i…Pad? Are you serious? Did some geniuses in the marketing department get totally trashed one night when trying to decide a name and go, “wait wait I know it you guys, I have it… the iPad. It’s like the iPod, only it’s a pad! Am I a genius or what!”?

No, somewhat akin to the naming of the Jesus Phone, creativity only extended so far. Something which apparently caught them by surprise was the near instant sanitary ‘pad’ jokes that appeared on Twitter instantly.

I mean, I know I’m being petty when I say this, but even the word shapes of iPad and iPod are pretty damn similar; you would think they would do something which differentiated it immediately.

The iPad is a bit out there. It’s definitely not a phone, it’s not your average music player, and it’s not a computer by a long shot.

It’s not a tumor!

The thing is, phones everyone can understand that they are limited. Until the Blackberry and the iPhone, pretty much everyone just expected their phone to be able to do calls well, and SMS was a bonus, because who wanted to stab the 7 key four times for the letter s? (seriously: S is not that uncommon a letter!)

Some are calling this a gigantic iPod touch, but it’s not that either. While I’m sure it’ll play music well and be the best touchable music interface out there, just because of the size of the screen and Apple’s expertise in designing user interfaces, but that still doesn’t make it practical as a portable music device.

It doesn’t work as a phone, and I don’t think much more can be said there: it hasn’t got phone capabilities, I haven’t heard any mention of a mic, and there’s no video camera to enable a sweet ultraportable video conference/chat device. Just imagine for a second how sweet that would be.

And finally: it’s definitely, definitely not a computer… even though it does all these computer-like things.

Yes, it’s got all the underpinnings of a computer, but it’s one that’s permanently stuck in Kiosk mode, locked down and unable to perform general-purpose tasks on demand. This was acceptable on an iPhone or an iPod, because their primary purpose was Something Else, something other than Being a Computer, and the limitations of hardware were accepted.

Uh, Well, What is it good for?

An iPod is to play music on the go, an iPhone is to make calls. Everything else those two devices do is a fringe benefit.

The iPad doesn’t have a distinct independent purpose – its features are a “But wait, there’s more,” list. Its essential function appears to be to consume content, a convenient and highly portable device to feast on the latest from what I’m going to refer to collectively as Big Content.

While I’d quite happily have a 10 paragraph screed on the evils of Big Content and Apple’s 800-pound gorilla behaviour with these guys on board, here’s a simple way to put it: iBooks is currently US-only.

While Amazon will happily accept my credit card details and international shipping address for a hard form of a book, and ship it free if I spend enough, Apple and the publishers have determined, negotiated, planned, connived to deny an electronic copy, which costs next to naught to copy and “ship” instantly, will not be available here in Australia.

The point of that little example is to illustrate how the content distributors are dictating terms of use – of how and where and when a particular production is viewed, read or heard by a consumer. So much for the freedom of the internet abstracting away location and distance, or the idea that information wants to be free.

And it may be a long bow to draw here, but the difference between the Apple iPad and Hewlett-Packard’s recently announced Slate, or Lenovo’s dockable-touchscreen concept, is that the iPad is locked down and limited to an Apple-controlled sandbox; Apple dictates terms, what applications are available to install, what purposes the system will be used for and how the system can be extended. The HP Slate is a true computer; the iPad is a piece of consumer electronics.

But is that really such a bad thing?

No, it’s not. But there’s an asterisk there.

No, because it works for some, even most people. It works for the average consumer, who just wants the device to work, do some fun stuff, and be above all things easy to use.  Apple understands that, and they deliver – consistently, constantly. The consumer doesn’t want to see a buffering message or a loading screen when they go to play a song on their iPod, they just want it to play like a CD player would, or a cassette deck once did. Apple understands, and by locking down the iPad, gosh darnit, they deliver.

The big asterisk is that the iPad, in the form that it is sold, is not a general purpose computer, not the revolutionary tablet that everyone was waiting for from Apple. While Steve Jobs might be out to make the consumer electronics industry in His image – one button ought to be enough for anybody – there are plenty of people out there who would have killed for a couple of USB ports, the ability to multitask (you already have the gestures to switch apps on Mac!) and the freedom to install whatever you wanted, and hang the battery life or ultra-slim profile.

These are the people who resign themselves to a Slate, despite the lesser beauty. These are the people who bought UMPCs when Microsoft pushed the Origami concept. These are the people who tinker with Linux on weekends.

These are the creatives, once a group that was Apple’s near-exclusive domain. The people who create the content aren’t looking at the iPad as a revolutionary device because it’s too locked down, too constrained by decisions made to sacrifice complexity for wider consumer appeal. Oh sure, there will be Apps That Can Do That, but the apps are constrained by the programmer’s imagination, so the truly creative will have to articulate their vision to a programmer before they can create with their imagination.

And that is why the iPad isn’t getting universal adulation; in creating the iPad, Apple came close to an ideal device – light, instantly portable, beautiful form-factor, and quite clearly capable of doing quite a lot – but they locked it down in an effort to appeal with simplicity, and in doing so have missed the bar that was set.

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

So I’d say Apple is creating something here which hasn’t really existed before, and will likely succeed in its own right, simply because it’s useful for doing quite a lot. The market for content consumption is vastly bigger than that for content creators, and I genuinely hope this device succeeds.

But… there will be those that find ways around the limitations placed on it, and there will be those that continue to hold a candle for the One True Tablet, awaiting the true coming of their messiah. And there will be those challenged by it, those who feel they must lift their game to compete, and hopefully those will find their edge in being general purpose.

The iPad may or may not quite suit your needs for now, but the only way to know if you’ll find it meeting your needs is to ask yourself: am I happy to consume content, or do I want to produce it too?

Supporting Material

5 replies on “On the Apple iPad”

There’s a few other interesting posts (and comments) I read on this issue:

Alex Payne: (agreeing with you)
Rory Marinich: (disagreeing with you)
Tim Bray: (Mixed Comments)

I think the biggest disadvantaged group of creatives will be programmers, due to the extent of the walled garden and the fact you can’t actually program ON it, only FOR it. Other creatives will get their apps…

there’s definitely a whole lot written on this topic, and the ones you’ve posted are equally worth reading – I find myself in the skeptic camp for now by the looks of things, though I’d be happy for it to succeed amongst a certain market (those less technologically inclined); it’s just if the people who are supposed to be pushing the boundaries fall for this too, then who knows how far this trend will creep?

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