Why the iPad Is Deceptively Good
A lot of people are panning the iPad, voicing a variety of complaints. It’s not revolutionary, they say; there’s nothing new here, it’s just a giant iPod Touch. It’ll be too heavy, too awkward, I don’t see how I will hold it or use it for such-and-such an application. It doesn’t replace other devices like the iPhone did, putting the features of the cell phone, iPod, and PDA all in one place. There’s no multitasking, no front-facing camera for video conferencing, there’s no USB or video out without an adaptor, no HDMI at all, and Flash doesn’t work on it. The battery can’t be replaced. The screen is a bad aspect ratio for watching widescreen video, I hate touchscreen keyboards, and an LCD monitor is bad for my eyes when I read. And the name is terrible, just look at all the feminine hygeine jokes.
So, the iPad is the biggest disappointment in history relative to its hype, right? From how these people are complaining about it, you would think so. It seems like articles based on the “iPad sucks” thesis are in vogue now. The question is, are they right? Is the iPad being trashed for good reason? Well, you can easily see from the title of this blog entry that I disagree. So let me explain why. It helps to break down the complaints into categories: lack of features, lack of novelty, and the user experience.
Lack of Features
Many people are upset that the iPad lacks many things they expected. This is often because they heard about such features in pre-release rumors, and came to think of them as part of what the iPad should be. It has a powerful enough CPU, so there should be multitasking; why won’t Apple support Flash animations; the device is a natural for video conferencing so where’s the camera; and why doesn’t it have the ports I want?
There are three answers to cover all of these questions. First, some features are software-specific, like multi-tasking. As with the iPhone, multitasking can and will be added with a software upgrade. If you get an iPad today, expect improvements to come without having to purchase a new device. Just like early iPhone adopters eventually got features like the App Store and cut-and-paste despite them not existing on the original device, your iPad will similarly receive updates, and multi-tasking is an obvious one–not to mention that it is implied in OS upgrades even now being tested.
Second, some physical features were not included in the original model, but they will be eventually. Yes, there’s no camera–but you can fully expect the feature to come with a future model. Again, just like the iPhone originally had no GPS, no video camera, and no compass, the iPad comes with a relative paucity of features. This was an obvious thing to expect; I predicted it myself in a blog post published ten days before the iPad was announced. This is simply the way many products are released. If you feel that a front-facing camera is a must-have, then simply wait for the next model to come out.
Third, some features were not included for design and esthetic reasons. We all know that Steve Jobs is a stickler for seamless designs; it’s the reason he never added a separate, physical right-click button to any Apple mouse. Few people agreed with him, and maybe this aspect of his design preferences is unnecessarily off-base. But this is part of the overall package, both the good and the bad, and what it means in the end is just that there’s no seam for a removable battery, and fewer ports along the edges. Fewer ports may also be a pricing or manufacturing concern, but whatever the case, most of these issues can be worked around, or don’t matter as much as many may think. You can add USB, SD card, and video out with adaptors. HDMI adaptors may come in the future (just as third-party HDMI adaptors came out for the MacBook Pro), but VGA should suffice in most situations if you want to use it as an output device. As for the battery, ten hours is more than almost anyone would use the device in a single day, and plugging in the device to recharge at night is not a hardship.
Some people complain about the lack of sufficient storage. I myself am peeved by Apple’s pricing tiers: $100 is way too steep for an extra 16 or 32 GB of memory. They clearly want to lure people in with the base price, but get them to end up spending the extra cash on more memory after having decided to buy one. However, there is a possible reason why the amount of internal storage won’t matter as much: networking. The iPad is not designed to be a storage device any more than the iPhone is. You don’t store your entire film and music libraries on the iPhone, you leave them on your main device and then sync the media with iTunes; same with the iPad. With the iPhone, wireless syncing was not included due to certain issues, battery life being the most significant. With the iPad, that may not be an issue. If you need a file, then from what I hear, you will be able to get it from your main computer using the WiFi network. Most stuff will be stored over the network, and so more storage on the iPad won’t be a big issue.
That leaves the lack of Flash support, and that was not an oversight: Apple intentionally left it out. They did so because they see Flash as more of a vulnerability than a benefit. Flash is slow, buggy, and opens up security holes. Personally, I detest Flash; although it can be used beneficially in controlled moderation, most Flash designers go way overboard, creating a web-surfing blight unmatched by any other, including the animated GIF and the “blink” tag. Apple is right to abandon it–and not just because it would open up the iPhone and iPad to hacking attacks, which is a good enough reason by itself. Flash is so Internet Explorer 6, it’s the Floppy Disk of software. Apple abandoned floppies years ahead of Windows PC makers, and they are similarly ahead of the curve where Flash is concerned. HTML5 is where it’s at.
Lack of Novelty
The next category of complaint is that the iPad isn’t revolutionary. We again see the problem–once more, as I predicted before the iPad was debuted–where expectations raised by the rumor mill led to disappointment. Everyone was looking forward to something completely new, a revolutionary OS or a stunning new design. Instead, Apple came out with what was essentially just a big iPod Touch. Why did it takes years for the Apple design team to start from scratch several times over to come up with something so basic?
It helps to remember that Apple’s challenge here was not to make something completely new and unexpected; Apple’s challenge was to make a tablet computer that would be practical and fun to use. People just assumed that this would naturally involve something new and revolutionary. I was personally nervous about the rumored “steep learning curve” of the tablet: if Apple made it too revolutionary and different, then people might not be able to use it. Just look at the iPhone’s touchscreen keyboard–hardly a huge new concept, but people freaked out at the idea.
The lack of novelty in the iPad might be explained by the old saying, “That’s a feature, not a bug.” As Steve Jobs pointed out in the unveiling, there are about 75 million people who will know exactly how to use this device from the word go. Apple chose the exact opposite of a steep learning curve, and once you think about that in light of the challenge of making a tablet computer easy to use, it makes perfect sense. The iPad is not intended to wow you with its novelty, it’s intended to be comfortable and convenient. People who complain that it’s just a big iPod Touch are completely missing the whole point of this new device.
One other consideration along these lines is the iPad’s place in the spectrum of usability. Many have noted that it doesn’t replace anything, save possibly for ebook readers. The iPhone, for example, replaced the need for lugging around a cell phone, PDA, ipod, digital camera, and video recorder. That’s wonderful, but that doesn’t mean that every device has to accomplish the same goal. The iPad was not design to replace existing products, it was designed to fulfill an existing need. That need was for a mobile device which was more capable than a smartphone, but easier to tote and carry than a laptop. It may not be the widest category of need you can imagine, but a lot of people will greatly appreciate and desire exactly such a device. Students will go nuts over what this will do for textbooks, for example. People who want color, backlit ebook readers will love it. How many people have complained about laptops being too heavy, or burning their legs with the excess heat, but can’t do what they want on a tiny smartphone screen? And then there are the uses that nobody thinks they need right now, but the iPad will open up for them–a holy grail in product design.
The User Experience
That brings us to the last category of complaint: it looks like I won’t like it. It looks too heavy and awkward to hold, the size is wrong, the screen won’t be good for me, the touchscreen keyboard is no good. The problem is, people who have only seen the device and have never held one in their hands are already making judgments about what it feels like to use one. That may be why almost all of the criticisms are coming from those who have never had a hands-on with the device. Look at the reviews by those who have played with the device, however, and you’ll encounter the same advice that Jobs gave: you have to use it before you understand how right it is. Once you use it, you may find that your concerns were unwarranted or have easy solutions. It may be heavy, but so are some books; we compensate by holding such objects while resting them on our laps or whatever surface is available. The touch keyboard may seem awkward, but so did the iPhone’s, and most people seemed to have little trouble adapting to that. I myself took just a few hours to get used to it, and now type on my phone almost as fast as I do a full-sized keyboard (a miracle relative to the numeric-keypad hell that I avoided for so long). The screen may be brightly backlit, but that’s what the brightness control is for.
This is not to say that the iPad will be for everybody. Some will never get used to a virtual keyboard; others will never be comfortable holding it; many may be bothered by any level of light from a backlit LCD screen; some may hate the design and esthetics, or may never get over their high expectations from the pre-launch days. Apple has always had its haters, and always will. That doesn’t mean that the product is bad or doomed to failure.
Dispelling Criticisms Is Not Proof of Excellence
You may have noticed that I have spent the entire blog post so far explaining why the negative reviews are off base, and have not really explained why the iPad is “Deceptively Good,” as I claim in the title. So let me take a whack at it. The answer lies in two aspects: the user interface, and the product’s future potential. Both are inextricably linked, and both are right now vastly under-appreciated.
When the first “personal computer” came out, it was fully a geek’s plaything. The Altair computer had no monitor, no keyboard–just a few rows of switches and blinking lights to allow for communication in binary code. Very few people could actually use one for anything. A few years later, the “trinity” of PCs–the Apple II, the Commodore Pet, and the Tandy TRS-80–introduced a “CLI,” or a text-based interface. You either remember or have somewhere seen the old “green-screen” text displays. This allowed people who were not comfortable in binary to use the machines, although you did usually have to learn the language that the computer understood, which still kept most people too distant from the PC experience.
It only took seven years after that for the first commercially popular PC to use the GUI–the graphics user interface with visual metaphors like the Desktop, folders, icons, and menus–that we have become so accustomed to. The GUI was a godsend because it made the computer interface more recognizable, something we could relate to more easily. We understood that a desktop is a place where you begin your work, that you choose from menus, and that folders contain documents. Suddenly, almost everybody could use a computer, and PC sales took off. But we’ve had the GUI for a quarter of a century now, and it’s beginning to show it’s age. What’s next?
The answer is multitouch. Using a mouse may be a step up from a text-only interface, but it is still uncomfortable and clunky. Surely you have seen people trying to move something on the screen farther than their mousepad gives them room for, and clumsily attempt to pick up the mouse and reposition it–in fact, you may well have been that person, several times. The flaw with the mouse, and the trackpad as well, is that you are not directly controlling the content on the screen. It is one step removed from a “hands on” experience.
To get a good sense of how significant that is, try drawing a picture. Do it on paper first–I draw a pretty good Snoopy, for example. Then open a drawing app on your computer, and with the mouse, try drawing the same picture. You’ll most likely find the results appalling. A trackpad may not fare much better, unless you’re experienced at it. Whenever your hands and fingers are removed from the immediate action, you lose dexterity and control. Current cursor devices like the mouse and trackpad are remote devices; multitouch allows direct access, which is far more natural, comfortable, and accurate. However, you won’t realize this until you’ve actually used a device like the iPad where multitouch comes into far more appropriate use than it does with the smartphone.
The problem with multitouch is how the screen is placed when you’re doing your hands-on controlling. A desktop screen is much too distant, and even a laptop screen would require holding your hands out in an unnatural fashion. A smartphone screen is more suited for that, but it’s too small to do much with. The tablet PC is, if you’ll forgive the cliche, just right. Anything you control with your hands has to be in your hands. Yes, there are disadvantages, but the payoff in control will far outstrip any of those.
A good example is Apple’s multitouch trackpad on the MacBook Pro. When it came out, I thought it was cool, but not really revolutionary. I figured that I’d be able to do a few new things on it, but did not expect it to change they way I use computers. However, I only recently realized that I had completely stopped using a mouse–something I had depended upon for years with previous laptop models. The multitouch screen is the next step up from that; after getting used to it, you’ll laugh at how clunky a mouse is. But the catch is, you won’t realize it until after you’ve used it for a while. The true utility of the touchscreen sneaks up on you.
One Word: Potential
That brings us to the real promise of the product. A lot of people look at the iPad’s current state, and what we already know about using iPhone apps, and see that as the end result. That’s a big mistake. What you have seen is only the beginning. Most of what the iPad will wow you with hasn’t come out yet.
To get a better sense, watch the keynote, and pay special attention to the software demos. Pay attention to how Jobs used the photo viewing app. Watch what Phil Schiller does with programs like Numbers and Keynote, how the multitouch comes into play. Watch the Nova game demo, and note the grenade-throwing and door-opening gestures. Be sure to watch the users’ hands, not just the screen. These are just a few examples of what can be done, but there is far, far more. It is limited only by what software developers can come up with, and you’ve seen the amazing stuff people have come up with on the iPhone App Store. The closed ecosystem provides a sheltered environment which not only helps prevent malware incursions, but slows piracy so that apps can be sold more cheaply. But most significantly, it allows the individual, the small-time software tinkerer, to immediately offer their wares for sale in one of the biggest marketplaces in the world. And now the iPad blows that wide open by combining the novel and powerful multitouch interface with enough real estate to make almost anything possible.
I can appreciate the benefit to apps whose layouts have traditionally been hard to control, like Filemaker Pro for instance; creating, resizing, and placing fields and buttons has always been a bit of a pain. I can easily imagine multitouch being used to make that not only easier, but a lot of fun to boot.
The features most people have focused on so far–the music playing, movie viewing, browsing and email, and even the ebook reading–are all just background. They are little more than examples of what can be done with the machine. Once you take in the full potential of the device, you will come to understand that the concerns people are airing today miss the point entirely. Panning the iPad because the screen size doesn’t fit the aspect ratio of certain movies is like saying that your Porsche is abysmal because the gas cap is the wrong shade of grey. The iPad is way, way more than just one application. Watching movies on it is a perk, not a raison d’etre. Same goes for many of the other concerns.
Apple’s mission was very simple: make a platform, and they will come. The idea was not to introduce something with whiz-bang flashing lights that would knock people’s socks off, it was instead to do what computer makers have been trying for nearly a decade and failing at: creating a tablet computer which has enough going for it that it can succeed as a product category. Apple has, by all appearances, succeeded in doing that. By building on the achievements of the iPhone platform and the introducing full-scale multitouch UI in a low-cost product where that feature can flourish, Apple has created something which is truly groundbreaking.
Remember, ground-breaking innovations are not always appreciated or understood when they come out. A lot of people sneered at the original Mac, many thought the iPhone would fizz out after the buzz dissipated–heck, even the PC itself was dismissed as an expensive toy at first back in the late 70’s. So don’t count the iPad as DOA before it even arrives. It’s far more than it seems.
So, by now, you have probably thought, “If you’re criticizing others for coming to conclusions about the iPad sucking before they get their hands on it, how can you claim that the reverse is true if you’ve never held one yourself?” Well, you got me. Part of it is an educated assessment–I’ve been looking at this kind of technology for a while. But that’s not enough.
Call it an article of faith.