Part 2: First Impressions

Understanding How Apple Innovates.

I wanted to let the dust settle before I continued my pre-release exploration of Apple's new device, the iPad. My initial impression of the iPad was decidedly negative, but as I noted in Part 1 of this preview, much of that was due to horrible live blogging from the launch event. (I really wish Apple would simply live stream these events; it would make a big difference.) After a few weeks of watching the entire industry engulf itself in a tsunami-like wave of iPad coverage, I think I can step back and offer up a few observations.

First, it's unclear what all the hype is about. The iPad is a typical Apple product, as elegant as it is lacking certain key features, and while the Apple fanbase is rushing to explain why those missing features are, in fact, part of a master plan and really for all our benefit, the truth is much simpler. It works better if you have a Mac, leaving the 96+ percent of us who use Windows tilting in the breeze. This is how Apple does things, period. It chooses aesthetics over function, always. There isn't an SD card because Steve Jobs doesn't like extraneous ports. There isn't a camera. But there will be. On and on it goes. And any attempt to justify either position--that Apple knows best vs. that Apple is clueless--is simply pointless.

Second, and this is important, I think, is that the iPad is simply not necessary. As I've argued elsewhere, we all need a phone, and while an iPhone is expensive, it is also arguably the nicest phone available anywhere (though the Google Nexus One and Verizon Droid both give it a run for that accolade). And most of us need computers, obviously.

What's odd about the iPad is that the initial market for this device is people who already own a smart phone and a computer. Why a large percentage of this audience would need or want to carry yet another device around is unclear. Further unclear is why we would want to learn yet another user interface. Phones, by nature, are simple to use and limited by onscreen real estate. Laptops, of course, offer more expansive screens and more powerful capabilities. But the iPad introduces yet another UI, one that is based on that of the iPhone, of course, but one that is different and more advanced (and complex). Not as advanced and complex as a PC, perhaps. But different from both the iPhone and laptop.


(This brings up a tertiary issue. I'm curious that Jobs is dedicating engineering resources to supporting so many UIs. The company must support similar but different versions of many key products on the Mac, Windows, the web, the iPhone/iPod touch, and now the iPad. No two of these are actually the same. That's a lot of duplication.)

Jobs did note that there are 75 million people out there who already know and use the iPhone OS (on both the iPhone and iPod touch), and those people will have a relatively easy time adjusting to the iPad OS. (And, I suspect, that future iPhone versions will use something even closer to the iPad OS.) True enough. But it's still yet another device, one that we don't need, running yet another kind of software, with its own look and feel and interaction techniques.

The nice thing about a netbook, aside from the price advantage, is that it's familiar. It looks and works just like that PC you've always had. That familiarity is available to over 1 billion people, by the way, so if Jobs' argument is to be taken seriously, then we should at least be honest and note that there are far more people out there who are not familiar with the iPhone OS and are, in fact, intimately familiar with Windows. Just a thought.

But back to the iPad.

If you listen to Windows Weekly, you know that I've been wishing for an iPod touch-like device that was bigger--I've noted that "four times the screen area" would be about perfect--simply for watching TV shows and movies while traveling. This was (and is) a personal wish. But when I look at the wider market for such things, I just don't see it happening. Companies like Archos already sell such devices, and for whatever it's worth, when it came time for me to actually buy such a thing, I opted for a netbook instead because it offered much more storage and better battery life at a lower price than did any of the slab-like media players that were around late last year.

The iPad is interesting to me in this vein because I'm already a big consumer of iTunes ecosystem content, and I'm certainly eager to see what the eBook and eNewspaper experience is like on the device compared to the Kindle. I know from years of iPhone and iPod Touch experience that I only care about a very small selection of apps, so that's not a huge draw per se, but compatibility with the Apps Store stuff is still important because it represents possibility. This, I think, is key to the allure of the iPad. Yes, it's just a bald-faced attempt to milk the popularity of iTunes by selling yet another device. But for the consumer, heck, it's another way to consume iTunes content. That alone is interesting. It really is.

But again, for me, it's all about video content, and it looks like the iPad is exactly what I've asked for. I can and will quibble about the details. It's unclear why this thing doesn't have a sleek 16:9 screen and smaller edges. I think it should have not one but two cameras. I'd really, really like to see SD expansion capabilities, and think that the current six model lineup is too much. And the storage capacities are too small: This thing should start at 64 GB and go up from there.

But you know what? Whatever. I still want one.

Looking beyond my own niche usage case, however, I have to wonder what the broader market possibilities are here. During the keynote, Jobs talked about how natural it was to "have the Internet in your hands," but I have to laugh since PC users have had that possibility for years, and last fall I was waxing on about how the new multi-touch user interfaces in Windows 7 made computing more personal and natural, especially on Tablet PC hardware. But again, whatever. It doesn't matter if something existed before if no one knew about or used it. If Jobs can reach a mass market with this device, the iPad will be seen as revolutionary. Even though it's not.

So what will people--real people--do with this thing? It's a companion device, to be sure. That could change over time, and it will, I bet, if the iPad takes off. But for now, it's yet another thing to buy and yet another device to consider for those casual computing and digital media consumption moments. Apple says that for the iPad to be successful it needs to be better--much better--than a PC/Mac or smart phone in several key areas. I suspect that iPad success will be measured much more coldly than that, but let's look at those areas that Apple highlighted. Then, in a future hands-on review, we can find out if Apple delivers on its promises.

Web browsing

Apple's Safari web browser is the standard by which all smart phone web browsers are based and in the PC world, the technology behind this browser, WebKit, drives what I think is the best browser of all, Google's Chrome. But smart phone web browsing is constrained by screen size, and while Apple has moved its Safari browser to the iPad, you're still only getting part of the web because this browser doesn't support important technologies like Flash. More important, perhaps, it is not as customizable as other browsers, like Chrome and Firefox. And since that's true on the PC as well, it's unclear how this experience could be considered better than what's currently available on a netbook.

I think the distinction here is that iPad web browsing will be more comfortable because of the tablet form factor. And since I've actually been doing this for years on the PC side with various tablets, I can say that there is something compelling about browsing the web by pointing and links and flicking to scroll. The iPad will deliver this to bigger market and I think most people will find it acceptable for causal browsing. Plus it won't seem like work when you're holding an iPad instead of a notebook computer.

Email

While few people would ever claim that smart phone email clients are as advanced as those on the PC or the mainstream web, I will say this: Apple's Mail app on the iPhone is a marvel, and I find it much more productive for what I think of as "triaging" email (really just pushing the unnecessary stuff out of the inbox, mostly). I really like what I see on the iPad, and especially Apple's use of an iPhone-like UI in pop-up lists. It's a smart way to do things.

But, again, this will be suitable only for casual emailing (i.e. triaging) since no one is ever going to be seriously productive on an onscreen keyboard. (Again, nearly a decade of experience here on the PC side.) So as with the web experience, it's not so much the best experience as it is perfectly acceptable given the limitations of the device. Put another way, no one is going to drop their PC email client because the iPad is here.

Photos

A tablet-like device like the iPad is ideal for viewing and even sharing photos, I guess, though of course the TV is a much better option in the home. Here, Apple has used its UI work with iPhoto and the Mobile Me Photos experience to good effect, though I'm nervous that this thing will work much better with those Apple products (i.e. with the Mac) then it will with the wider Windows world and the broad range of photo services that are actually popular, like Flickr, especially, and Google PicasaWeb.

Video

Here's where the iPad will really shine, I expect, though again the 4:3 screen is a bit of a surprise and disappointment. Apple's iPod software on the iPhone and iPod Touch is excellent, and there's every reason to believe that this will be even better thanks to the more expansive onscreen real estate. And for anyone that's ever squinted at a tiny smart phone screen and wondered what all the fuss is about, this should be just about the right size. I can't wait for the iPad HD, though. You know it's coming.

Music

This is a typical example of the worry I voiced earlier, that Apple was spending too much time duplicating UI across multiple devices. The iTunes application on the iPad looks like a stripped down version of the PC/Mac app and nothing at all like the version of the iPhone and iPod touch. You browse your music collection like you do on the PC, but it appears that it's mostly consumption focused. That is, you won't usually be making playlists or organizing right on the device. (That doesn't mean it's not possible. Just that it's not ideal.)

Whereas video playback makes a lot of sense on a big screen device, music more often does not. When I listen to music, I'm working on something else (and this is actually possible on this device, though the iPad doesn't multitask otherwise), or I'm in a place like the car, a plane, or the gym, where looking at the screen just doesn't make a lot of sense. They had to add this, of course, but I don't see this being a huge differentiator. It's something you'll typically do in the background, not interact with.

Games

I'm not a big fan of iPhone/iPod Touch games, but my kids are, and compatibility with the voluminous App Store selection is huge. That this will be augmented with iPad-specific games is also key, and if the first game demos we saw in the keynote are any indication, the iPad is going to be a popular game machine. Look out, Nintendo and Sony.

eBooks

I've been a huge fan and advocate of eBooks since Amazon shipped the first Kindle and I still use mine every single day to read the newspaper and books. In fact, the Kindle is so good for books in particular that I always get the Kindle version when that's available, and if a publisher has delayed eBook publication for some reason, I just wait. The whole package, from the UI to the legibility of the text, to the pricing and free wireless availability of books just puts the Kindle over the top. There's nothing like it.

Well, there wasn't. With the iPad, Apple will give the Kindle a run for its money, though this may be less of an issue since Amazon will no doubt make an iPad-specific Kindle app of its own. What the iPad offers over the Kindle is color, of course, but also newspaper-style layouts for its newspaper subscriptions. Having used the New York Times Reader on the PC over several years now, I can say that I do prefer this type of presentation over the Kindle's less dynamic display. This is much less of an issue for books, however.

The Kindle, of course, gets much better battery life; it's measured in days not hours. And the Kindle screen won't harm or tire your eyes over time as the iPad's will. But for short bursts of reading, the iPad will likely offer a great experience. And let's face it, anything that helps people read is A-OK with me. I'm interested to see how this stacks up.

Looking ahead...

For now, the iPad does not appear to meet Apple's hyperbolic claims, but it's an interesting device and one I'm very eager to test. As I noted previously, the iPad meets my needs for a portable video player. But I don't review products for myself. I'm curious whether this device will meet the needs of the broader consumer market. And come March, I intend to find out.