“When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical” says Jonathan Ive in the slick, enthusiastic video launch of Apple’s no-longer-mythical tablet device, the iPad.
Magical? I haven’t played with one myself but I’d go so far as to say that the single biggest problem with Apple’s launch today was that it lacked just that: magic. The device can, albeit unfairly, be described as “a big iPod Touch” and almost certainly will be.
But that really is grossly unfair. It’s clearly a very well designed, desirable piece of technology. I’d be dishonest if I said I didn’t want one (although it did take the previously mentioned slick video to convince me), but then the geeky, gadget-obsessed part of me always wants a new Apple toy. The problem Apple has here is that nothing could possibly have lived up to the pre-launch hype.
So let’s try to take a step back from the hype, and evaluate the device fairly: it’s got a 9.7 inch screen, running at a resolution of 1024×768. It sports fast 802.11n wireless networking, and at its heart is Apple’s custom-designed 1ghz A4 processor. There’s a variety of internal storage options (16, 32, and 64 gigabytes), and optional 3g support for use with mobile phone networks. But the tech specs, are for the most part, uninteresting beyond the realisation that Apple now manufactures everything, even the CPU.
What’s interesting is the operating system and the applications: the software that’s driving the device and the software you’re going to use on it on a daily basis. The iPad is running iPhone OS 3.2, and is compatible with iPhone apps; either displaying them in a small 480×320 window with huge black borders, or blowing them up to full screen using “pixel doubling”.
The device’s applications evoke a strange deja vu sensation for anyone with an iPhone. They look oddly familiar, yet they seem new at the same time. The email application, for example, is 1/3 the iPhone’s email application, but then 2/3 full screen preview. At least, in landscape mode; in portrait it looks just like the iPhone version. There are nods to the iPhone throughout the device, and yet everything feels weirdly spacious.
There was much song and dance about the new iBooks app: Apple’s version of Amazon’s Kindle app, or the very popular Stanza app. Indeed, iBooks is the iPad’s main weapon in a direct attack on Amazon’s Kindle device. Why buy a device that just does eBooks (although Amazon did recently announce their intention to allow Kindle apps) when you can buy one that does everything?
Apple also unveiled their iWork suite for the iPad, perhaps giving some indication of the kinds of people they’d expect to be using it. No iLife product for the device at this stage, only iWork. The applications look slick, pretty, and typically Apple-esque but…
Text entry is via an on-screen keyboard, with the keys spaced very much like Apple’s current line of keyboards. You’re not supposed to use your thumbs on the iPad, they want you to type like you would on a real keyboard. And that’s where the shine starts to wear a little thin. The angle of attack for typing on the device doesn’t look at all conducive to comfortable text entry for larger amounts of text. At first glance it seems less comfortable for short text than even a smartphone’s on-screen keyboard. Apple sell an add-on keyboard dock for the device, but using that destroys its “take it anywhere” charm; you’re now transporting your iPad and clumsy looking keyboard bolt-on.
And so we start to touch on the dichotomy at the heart of the iPad:
Text entry: potentially flawed.
Application support: if developers don’t support the iPad you’re going to be looking at a range of scaled up iPhone apps. There’s going to be any more iPhone users than iPad users for some considerable time. Not to mention the introduction of another platform to fragment the app store.
Video: the iPad supports 720p playback, but the screen is square, not widescreen, and less than 720p HD. Output to a TV is also restricted to 1024×768 according to Apple’s tech specs.
Features: it doesn’t do anything that other devices don’t currently do. The iPhone has book readers already, as do other mobile platforms. Other devices let us view photos, send email, keep a calendar, or any one of the features on Apple’s iPad Features page.
We’re being presented this magical, revolutionary, best of breed device that doesn’t seem terribly appropriate or efficient for some of the things it does, and doesn’t offer anything dramatically new on top of other devices.
What’s even more disappointing in all of this is Apple’s apparent lack of fixes for the iPhone’s current problems. The homescreen design remains the same: pages of applications arranged in grids of icons, requiring the user to swipe-page their way from one end of the device to the other. Spotlight is included, a feature hastily introduced to the iPhone to attempt to tame a system that was never actually intended for use with installable applications.
There’s no indication that the device’s notification system has changed: its applications will still use Apple’s much criticised push notification system, which in turn will still suffer from the same issues it currently has.
The biggest issue with a device that’s specifically designed for productivity (and the presence of iWork confirms that’s the intention) is a lack of multi-tasking. You can’t listen to streaming music using an app while working in iWork. You can’t display a web page on screen while creating a presentation. You can’t display your notes while writing up a finished article. One app at a time please.
In terms of what the iPhone OS does – and this applies to both the iPhone and the iPad – things haven’t really come on. And the smartphone competition is starting to catch up, even if Apple have a head start in the Tablet race.
What does it all mean for the iPhone? Current reports are that the development kit for the iPad is not compatible with current iPhones. This doesn’t mean Apple won’t eventually release something, but for now iPhone users are left out in the cold. Indeed, there was no mention of the iPhone with regard to the iWork applications, or even iBooks. The latter is a particularly puzzling omission seeing as Kindle/Stanza/Classics et al already function admirably as ebook readers on the device. There was also no mention of comics on the device, although it’s fairly easy to imagine a third party app covering that shortly after launch.
One thing Apple really did get right is the price. The cheapest model comes in at $499 which is dramatically cheaper than I expected. They’re not going after the MacBook Air market with this, they’re going after the iPhone market. Which makes a certain sense: millions of people already know how to use their iPhone, so why not replace their laptop with a bigger version. And then replace their TV with an even bigger version! (just remember: you heard it here first – next gen Apple TV to run iPhone OS and feature Wii style remote interface)
Speculation will now inevitably turn to what’s next. In a few weeks we’ll start to get iPhone 4G this, and iPhone OS that. New hardware, more apps, additional carriers. The hype machine will reboot itself and start up all over again. Apple generated so much buzz prior to this announcement without anyone ever seeing or hearing a single confirmed fact about the device. And they’ve revealed something that’s – aside from generating lots of feminine hygiene jokes – not really captured the imagination.
I’d love to play with one. I may well buy one at some point. But I remain unconvinced as to whether it will infringe on the popularity of NetBook devices, laptops certainly have nothing to fear, and the iPhone and numerous other smartphone brethren can’t really learn much from it.
Evolutionary, not revolutionary, would be my take at this stage. But then, they said that about the iPod didn’t they?