Thoughts on the iPad

I like the iPad. A few friends and acquaintances accuse me of being stupid and easily fascinated by sparkly objects. Rather than have the same argument over and over again, I'm writing all my thoughts and predictions here. I will speak no further on the subject until I actually own an iPad. Whenever I am on my couch at home, I have a laptop computer with me. I browse the web while my wife watches her girly TV shows. I pay bills. I deal with email. I go to IMDB to figure out where I've seen that actor before. I get directions to wherever we're going. I write blog posts.

Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I've grown dependent on having that electronic link with the world at arm's reach. Even in bed, I often have my laptop with me, so that I can read or watch a video when insomnia strikes.

But the laptop is not ideal for the job. I don't like having a hot, heavy, vibrating hunk of metal in my lap. I don't like the fan noise. I don't like the need to open it when I want it and close it when putting it aside. I don't like backing up the humongous hard drive. A trackpad is not a good substitute for a mouse. I don't like the need to memorize all the shortcut keys to be productive without a mouse. I don't like it when the dogs walk over the keyboard and mess things up.

More and more, I reach for my iPhone instead of my laptop, but the iPhone's tiny display has obvious limitations.

So, an iPad would fill a real need for me (using a First World definition of need). It looks like a tool that will let me browse the web, read, watch video, etc., without all the unnecessary clunkiness of a laptop. Believe it or not, I wanted something like this before Lord Jobs told me I wanted it.

If you don' t have that need, fine. I'm not trying to sell you anything. I'm just explaining why I would like to have an iPad, or something like it. (And there is currently nothing else like it.)

I believe a lot of other people will want one too. There are people like me who want the couch/bed experience. Anyone who has tried to use a laptop on an airplane will appreciate how much better the iPad would be for that situation. There will be people who want to take something to school, the library, or the coffee shop without lugging a laptop case around. The iPad will be a much better notebook than a "notebook computer".

For many people, an iPad will not be a good product. If you do a lot of writing and editing of text, iPad probably won't be a great thing. If you want to quickly switch among multiple applications, iPad probably won't be a great thing. If you need Microsoft Office or Photoshop or some other specific desktop application, iPad probably won't be a great thing. If you don't have a few hundred dollars of disposable income, iPad probably won't be a great thing. But that's OK—nobody is requiring you to replace your laptop with an iPad.

An iPad won't do everything a laptop does. It's not supposed to do everything a laptop does. The relationship between iPad and laptop is similar to the relationship between a microwave oven and a set of pots, pans, and cooking utensils. The pots, pans, and cooking utensils can produce more satisfying meals than the microwave can, but often you just don't want to drag all that stuff out and clean up afterward. A microwave is a good complement to a well-equipped kitchen.

Remember back when all of our moms and grandparents suddenly started buying computers? It was because they wanted to use the web and e-mail. That's still all that most of them do. They don't care about multi-tasking or writing their own software or enterprise integration. They shouldn't have had to learn the differences between left-click and right-click and double-click and control-click and shift-click. The iPad is what they needed back then. The iPad is what the original Mac was, thirty years later.

There is a lot I don't like about the iPad (What? The ultimate fanboy has criticisms?). Apple's locked-down control of the platform is definitely a problem. The iPad doesn't support a lot of functionality that it obviously should (multitasking, use of network printers, and so on), and Apple's policies prevent third-party developers from providing such functionality. The media DRM can be frustrating, but I think the content providers deserve more of the blame for that than Apple does. Objective-C is a relic from the 1980's, and Apple's development tools haven't really improved since they were NeXT's development tools.

It doesn't run Flash, but that doesn't bother me. While I do think it would be a more useful device if it did, and users should be able to install whatever crap software they'd like, I think websites that require Flash are like websites that require Internet Explorer 6. If Apple is hastening the day when we all laugh at such sites, than I applaud them.

It doesn't have a camera. So what? A computer needs a camera like a fish needs a bicycle.

Regarding multi-tasking: I actually like the idea of having a single app running at a time. That fits my own preferences for using my laptop; I often use the "Hide Others" menu item to minimize distractions. It annoys me when I have to open Activity Monitor to figure out which app is using 200% CPU. However, it would be really nice if Pandora or instant messengers could run in the background. If Apple won't give us full multitasking, I hope they will at least provide some sort of support for third-party background tasks in the near future.

Now on to some predictions. I do think Apple has created a new product category. Notice that every new smartphone looks a lot like an iPhone? The same is going to happen in this market segment. I think you'll see the netbook and e-reader markets shrink, and more vendors will provide things that look like the iPad.

I hope a strong competitor emerges, because we need choice. Apple is first out of the gate, and as with the iPhone, it will take a while before anyone else produces anything with the level of polish needed to be considered an alternative. The surprisingly low price is going to give Apple a pretty big user base pretty quickly.

The strong competitor won't be a Windows-based machine. Microsoft still thinks everything, from the smallest smartphone to the biggest enterprise server, should have a desktop-style Windows UI, with all of its complexity and anachronisms. Apple was very smart to base the iPad on the iPhone UI, rather than on Mac OS X UI. The consistency of Windows- and Mac OS-style UIs was a great thing 20 years ago, when people were first learning about personal computers, but experience with smartphones and videogame systems shows that people can pick up different UIs quickly, without need for a mouse, windows, menus, and other such things. UIs can and should be designed specifically for each different type of appliance, but Microsoft is going to keep giving us the Windows 95 UI everywhere. So we're going to see a lot of tablet-pad knockoffs that run Windows 7 Basic, and they will all suck.

Putting a desktop-style OS on iPad-style hardware is not a solution. Cool as the iPad hardware is, it's the OS that makes it what it is. If your OS is designed for a keyboard and mouse, then you are not competing with the iPad.

Maybe someone will make a good Android-based alternative, or maybe Google's Chrome OS on iPad-like hardware will work. Maybe someone will make Ubuntu touch-friendly. I'm doubtful, but we'll see.

Some say that the iPhone and iPad are the first steps on a path to a world where we will all be limited to using locked-down narrow-use devices, and nobody will have access to an open platform. I can't see this happening. Buying an iPad doesn't require you to turn your laptop in to the authorities. You can continue to do everything you could do before you had an iPad. There will always be Google, Microsoft, Linux, and/or other alternatives available if Apple does to its computers what it has done with its mobile devices. And more of our applications and data are going to live in The Cloud rather than on our devices, so it won't matter what rules the devices follow.

Ten years from now, I think the computers we use will look a lot more like the iPad than like the Macbook or a Wintel laptop, both in terms of hardware and software. Apple may not dominate the industry then, but the heritage will be obvious.

You can hop on the bandwagon now, or wait and hop on later. I don't care what you do. I'm not ashamed of being an early hopper.

© 2003-2017 Kristopher Johnson