Finally it is here. There has been a lot of negative reactions to Apple's new iPad. Remember the reaction to the first iPod or the iPhone? Many of the complaints are things that can (and hopefully will) be addressed with software updates. This is a major new product which means they can't have absolutely everything implemented at its inception. Here's my perspective on the iPad and why I believe this new device from Apple will once again revolutionize an industry.
I believe this Gizmodo post hits the nail on the head. The idea that a tablet should run a desktop operating system is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because creating a tablet that simply runs a desktop OS will be at best be clunky and won't capture the market. If someone wants to use a desktop environment, they will buy a laptop or netbook. The way to really make this tablet successful is to change the whole computing paradigm. This means creating a new interface for this "computer" - something easier and more intuitive to use. In Computer Science we often talk about abstraction - it is really the only way you can understand the inner workings of computers. As you move up from the lowest hardware level to complex chips and eventually the software bridge, you must abstract away the details. Moreover, an operating system does just that - it abstracts away a lot of the tasks necessary to make a computer function and thus makes them usable and actually enjoyable. The Apple iPad takes this abstraction one step further.
The iPad differs in a number of good ways from a traditional desktop OS:
- Restricted Applications: This has been seen as a negative thing
- and it is from the perspective of a power user. But for regular users this is actually a good thing. Having an approval process for applications means no malicious software (e.g. spyware, phishing software, or viruses) and also no buggy or inefficient software which will take over your system and drain your battery. This is not to say there aren't disadvantages to this (see below), but for average computer users the benefits greatly outweigh the downside
- Abstracted Filesystem: This is one mentioned in the Gizmodo article and it really makes good sense - users don't like dealing with all the files and folders on their computer. Often they're not sure how to transfer files from one device to another, or even one folder to another. Finding files is yet another difficult, related task. The iPad does away with all this by abstracting the filesystem. Instead of folders where you keep your files, different types of files can just be accessed through their various applications. This innovation is really the shift which I think will make this the new 2.0 computer for the masses
- Touch Interface: Yes, this has already been around in the iPhone and iPod Touch. However, having a large screen like this means that you can finally interact with the same content on your normal computer but instead the experience is more personal. Surfing the web via the touch interface creates a much more seamless experience than the traditional computer. This interface for most people is much more intuitive than a keyboard and mouse
- A Content Store: Linux, Debian in particular, has had this concept for years. Provide a central repository from which you can download all your programs and keep them up to date. The numerous benefits of this system of management are now brought to the masses with a computing device which lets you download apps from one place rather than hunting the web for an executable and then running an installer. Moreover, the apps are kept up-to-date pretty much automatically. This same concept is applied to content - if you want to access a book, song, or video, simply browse the central repository. Granted, you can also add content externally but this integration is crucial for average users
- Portability: You can say what you want about laptop or netbook portability, but having a device like this which you can easily slip in a backpack that weighs so little and gets 10 hours of battery life is incredible. 10 hours doing intensive work like video playback or web surfing!
- Price: $499 for this device? For many users, having an ultra-portable device which does pretty much everything they need is well worth this price tag in comparison to a laptop. I'm glad the rumours were wrong on this front
- iWork: Apple has sold the iPad with these new products. Creating a complete and customized (fully touchscreen oriented) office suite for this device is an important step to success. However, an even bigger factor is the price tag. $10 for a full-fledged word processing application and $30 for the whole suite? Compare that to Microsoft Office. Not only that but you can choose which productivity apps you actually use and just buy those.
Problems - there are a few issues which Apple should resolve to make this product live up to its full potential:
- Restricted Applications: This is a good thing most of the time (see above), but maybe you want to run Firefox or a Google Voice app on your iPad. Some app rejections don't make sense from the standpoint I outlined above. Lifehacker has a simple solution to this problem: created a special "restricted apps" section of the App Store which you must explicitly enable and agree to. Here Apple can put apps that are more geared towards power users such as emulators, alternative browsers, etc. Average users won't care that they're using Safari, it will seem equivalent to any other browser and probably will perform faster on the iPad since Apple has spent so much time designing it. By offering a restricted section, Apple can satisfy the demands of some of their users while maintaining the ease of use for the rest.
- Background Processes: Currently the iPad does not allow background apps. I don't see this being an issue for things like AIM or SMS messages, but I can see it being a problem if you want to listen to Pandora while typing a paper. Fortunately, this is solely a software problem and I believe Apple will introduce this functionality fairly shortly. I think a good way to do it is allow developers to apply for background enabling for specific apps. You don't need to run certain apps, like 3D games, in the background. Those will just hog memory and drain your battery. By selectively allowing apps to be backgrounded, Apple can keep their commitment to good battery life and a responsive system while making background-capable apps work well.
- On-Screen Keyboard: Many also claim that the keyboard is not innovative enough or will be hard to use. My opinion on the keyboard is this - Apple has obviously spent a lot of time developing this product. Steve Jobs was known to have rejected a number of prototypes because they weren't good enough. They must have designed this keyboard to work well enough to be usable - maybe not for typing dissertations but at least for average typing. Moreover, Jobs typed quickly and seemingly easily on the iPad during his keynote demonstration. I think this is a non-issue, especially with the nice, small keyboard-dock.
So where does this leave us? What will the iPad mean for the computer industry? The reason Steve Jobs said that the iPad is "the most important thing I've ever done" is because this is the computer reinvented for the masses; computers 2.0. Average users can now use a computer that is more intuitive and lets them simply access what they want. This is why he made that statement - the iPad has the potential to completely change the world of computers forever. Most people aren't power computer users, so for them the iPad is finally a perfect fit for their computing needs. Laptops and desktops are not going to disappear, they will still be prominent when more power is required and favored by power users, but this device and its successors will create a new, better computer experience for the average users.
What about print media? This is another reason why the iPad has so much potential for success. Yes, the Kindle is a good ebook reader. However, it does not have a color display and it does not display pictures and video and really interactive content like the iPad can. In order for newspapers and print media to see a resurgence, they must reinvent themselves with an updated format for the 21st century. Thia means new content and a more convenient format. What better way to do this than through the iPad. I also think the iPad will be revolutionary in education - imagine carrying just the iPad which has all your textbooks on it! And this isn't like carrying a laptop with PDFs - these textbooks will feel a lot like real textbooks in that you can flip through the pages.
The future for the iPad is bright - and I am really excited to see where this takes the computer industry. Granted, you won't see gcc on iPads around the world anytime soon, but for casual computer user, which makes up a large portion of the consumers, the iPad is a perfect fit.
Image courtesy of Apple.com