It’s amusing. I used to be a die-hard Apple fan and would follow their keynotes in live streams a decade ago, loving every single silly promise made there. Somehow the enthusiasm dropped off or I’m just becoming old. There were a few significant announcements Apple made in the past years, of which the iPod remained the most surprising and significant. Since, they have totally mastered their PR in a way they are very disciplined and secretive while leaking just enough to keep the gossip-mills running. Great job on that. A job that is probably simplified by the fact that 99,99% of the internet media are solid bastions of mediocricity with an insatiable hunger for gossip and linkbait. They wouldn’t touch classical journalism and the associated work if it came chasing them. Which, altogether, I find sickening.
This week’s iPad announcement may be Apple’s best coup in that respect yet. Pretty much everybody I know who’s remotely interested in tech toys had followed the ‘gossip’ and was anticipating the show. The die-hard Apple-fanboys, the lost consumer souls, even the Linux fanboys (WTF?). And out of that came the so-called iPad, whose name seems like a stupid pun to me - but I am sure people will take delight in telling me that I’m ‘wrong’ about it because the thing will sell like hotcakes.
The device doesn’t look particularly spectacular to me. Apart from its strange aspect ratio [one has to assume that there was a special offer on 4:3 screens somewhere, making Apple want to abandon the whole ‘widescreen’ feature which would come handy for watching films in landscape mode and equally for reading as it’d reduce scrolling / page flipping in portrait mode] the iPad looks like a fairly straightforward development that takes the iPhone technology and merges it with the latest Jonathan Ive Alugasm [heck, I can’t see Ive anymore; also, being unable to talk without constant movement of hands seems to be a déformation professionelle of ‘creative’ types].
My initial reaction to all the iPad rumours was that the device most likely won’t be any good for me. It will marry the portability of a MacBook with the flexibility of an iPod. Which is doing things the wrong way round. Of course nobody really used the iPad yet, but my take is that, yes, just like design books it will be a splendid item for your designer coffee table [and of course I’ll get one, once I have said coffee table along with staff to keep everything shiny all the time], but I couldn’t really see myself using one. I won’t have it at the dinner table when wanting to do a Wikipedia lookup. And it won’t run the software I want to run otherwise.
I can, however, see how people who don’t use their computer for much may be able to use it as a computer replacement. My mum, for example, does e-mail, web browsing and digital photos. And the device may just be perfect for her when she decides to retire her trusty Pismo Powerbook. Whether or not it will be good enough probably depends on how much the on-screen keyboard sucks [the screenshots I saw online looked very similar to the iPod one, i.e. like a loathable mess which makes any non-A-Z character and thus typing a pain]. Apple’s standard decision to offer completely overpriced storage an no way to easily extend it [hello SD card slot], say, certainly won’t help the viability of the iPad for photo or music storage. [I’d also be interested in seeing how backups work for the device when it’s used standalone without being synced to some copy of iTunes.]
Another remaining issue is that the iPad seems to contain all the big Wrongs of the iPhone platform. It will only run the software that pleases Apple, not the software that you make for it. With an even more expensive device which may have the potential to act as a fully grown computer that’s more of an issue than it was for a phone of an iPod-cum-webbrowser. And with a more powerful machine (which people seem to wet their pants over) it would be even more of a loss to not be able to use it in a way Big Brother hasn’t foreseen. I really am curious about the performance of the iWork applications, by the way. Numbers, for example, is slow as molasses on a current MacBook once you try to do anything slightly non-trivial. How will a tablet fare for that? Will it be magically - a word Apple seem to love using for the iPad - fast? Or will they dumb down the applications even more?
Dumbing down is perhaps the main critical point I am seeing here. While the iPhone/Pod/Pad platform may be shiny and nice, so far it has created an environment that favours simple applications. A few features, executed well (if you pick one of the 1% of non-crapp apps), as many people on the internets will be happy to point out. That is nice if the tasks you want to do are simple ones which can be pre-defined by a developer. The class of applications I haven’t seen for the iPhone/Pod/Pad environment, however, are those with a bit of ‘depth’, those which manage to have the ‘advanced’ you may be needing after a while and including them in an elegant way that doesn’t confuse the beginner. That class of applications is what makes computers amazing tools, tools which let you work creatively and go beyond what the programmer and designer of the software anticipated. In my opinion the ‘simple’ application ‘culture’ fostered by the iPhone OS is mainly a simple minded one. One for consumers rather than users or creators and I consider that a bad thing. Some people may call me an Old-Worlder for such an attitude which I consider short-sighted. Technical fiddling is not valuable but depth and versatility is.
Another point I find interesting is the e-Book issue. The iPad looks like its shiny and backlit display is not as nice for reading as today’s e-Book readers’ are. But, if I’m not mistaken, Mr Jobs said he doesn’t believe in the e-book genre anyway (only creates toys for illiterates?), so that probably doesn’t come as a surprise.
A further issue is notetaking. Laptops are becoming increasingly popular in talks for taking notes. In particular ‘netbook’ computers are quite popular for that as they aren’t as huge (although it’s unclear to me how anybody can type on their keybaords…) and I heard many people wanting some kind of ‘tablet’ computer to take notes on - possibly in writing rather than typing. It seems that those people will remain disappointed by the iPad.
I’m not a huge fan of the execution here, either. That said, if I didn’t already own a laptop, I might be persuaded to buy this. For real computing, I use my desktop and tend to use my laptop for quick usage on the road. The iPad will be great, as many have said, for media consumption in a light-weight form-factor.
I don’t like Apple’s new trend towards closing up, though. Part of their strength over the last decade has been the embracing of open platforms and standards. Closing things back up seems like the wrong approach. The other thing I don’t like here is that I’m suspecting that the iPod/iPhone OS are on a convergence path with the Mac OS, and I suspect OS 11 will be their meeting point. If that means OS 11 will have the same fist-grip on development, I will be unhappy.
Maybe Google will be the one to keep them open in this regard.
One last thought: am I the only one who wonders why Apple hasn’t leveraged their “Ink” technology in any of these devices? It works quite well and seems a natural fit— at least for quick notes and such…
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