I’ve had about a month to play around with the iPad, Apple’s long-awaited tablet computer. The iPad seems to engender more controversy than any other gadget I’ve seen. People seem to either love the iPad or absolutely hate it. After playing around with it, I’m firmly in the “love it” camp. The reason why the iPad provokes such strong reactions seems to be because it’s such a revolutionary device—here’s why.
Grokking the iPad
One of the reasons why the technical elites seem to look down their nose at the iPad is because it’s not intuitive what the iPad really is. The iPad is not a laptop replacement. Yes, it replaces many, if not most, of the functions of a laptop, but it’s not designed to replace a primary computer. The iPad has to be connected to iTunes before it can be used the first time. The iPad isn’t the right device if you want to use Photoshop or write a thesis—although it can edit images and has a decent word processor. It is what Steve Jobs said it was back in January 2010—it is a device that sits between a laptop and a smartphone/iPod.
The critics argue that it’s just an oversized iPod touch. In many ways they’re right—but that misses the point. The iPod touch is a fantastic gadget, and it sells like hotcakes. It has a huge base of users. So when Apple says in regard to the iPad that “you already know how to use it” they are absolutely right. Coming from an iPod touch or iPhone to an iPad is basically seamless. The only learning curve comes from getting used to the larger virtual keyboard. And it is that vastly expanded screen space that makes the iPad different. Calling it a bigger version of the touch ignores what being a bigger iPod touch entails—it opens up new uses for the device.
For example, watching video on an iPhone is possible, but painful. The screen is just two small at 3.5 inches. But on an iPad, watching video is a dream. The iPad’s screen is naturally suited to it in a way that the iPhone’s is not. The same is true for web browsing. The iPhone browser is great, but when you expand the screen real estate to the size of the iPad, web browsing becomes much more natural.
That’s what makes the iPad so ineffable. It’s hard to describe the feeling of sitting on a couch with an iPad and just surfing the web. It feels incredibly natural. It’s completely effortless. That’s the advantage of the iPad: it takes the familiar touch-based interface that millions already know and loves and gives it much more room. Handling it in the store doesn’t give the full experience—the iPad is a device that isn’t instantly intuitive, but once you understand it and get a feel for it, you just get it.
Giving the Deskop the Finger
Here’s where the revolutionary part comes in. The iPad is the future of computing. That’s not hyperbole, it’s based on the nature of the device.
Since the late 1970s, computers have all followed the same basic metaphor. You have arbitrary files in a hierarchical file system. Graphical user interfaces all tend to use “windows” representing applications that are controlled with a pointing device. There’s a “desktop” underneath where files and application shortcuts can be saved. When Xerox PARC came up with this metaphor in the 1970s it was revolutionary. Everyone, from Apple to Microsoft to Linux, copied that metaphor.
From a computer science standpoint, it makes sense. From a user’s standpoint, it doesn’t. The desktop metaphor is just not that intuitive. For example, take the task of trying to find a picture from vacation. Is it on the desktop? Is it is ‘My Documents\My Pictures’? Or did it end up in ‘C:\Program Files\Some Application\Some Arbitrary Directory\Timestamp\Vacation Photos’? Various operating systems have tried to make it easier to find files, but it can still be a pain.
The iPad jettisons that whole metaphor. There’s no “desktop” on the iPad, just a space for applications, and only applications. If you save a picture to the iPad, it’s in a common repository and nowhere else. All the videos are in the video application, all the music is in the iPod application. The user never thinks of interacting with “files” stuffed into a hierarchical file system. That file system is there, underneath everything, but it’s been shrouded from view.
And, most critically, there’s no pointing device. The benefits of multitouch interfaces are obvious. And the iPhone OS that runs the iPad was built especially for multitouch devices. Microsoft’s efforts shoehorn multitouch into Windows 7 have failed, because there’s a fundamental difference between an OS designed for touch and one designed for a pointing device. Apple understands this, and has designed the iPhone OS to be built for multitouch and nothing else.
The old desktop metaphor made sense back when it was invented and used. But it no longer makes sense for a device like the iPad. What makes the iPad so revolutionary is that it proves the desktop metaphor is no longer required. The touch metaphor has replaced it, and the touch metaphor has much more potential for innovation than the desktop metaphor did.
What about Freedom?
The critics say that the iPad isn’t a liberating device—you’re stuck playing in Apple’s sandbox when you use it. That’s only half true. Yes, the App Store requires you to play by Apple’s rules and Apple’s rules alone. But there’s a good reason for this, and even then the App Store is not the only thing that makes the iPad shine.
First there’s the issue of iPad apps. Apple has gotten a lot of heat for their policies on how apps are approved and how they may be created. Some of it is admittedly deserved. But the purpose behind these rules is valid: Apple wants the iPad to just work. Right now a user can install any iPad app without fear of crashing their system. There’s no need for installers—every app is in its own self-contained sandbox. There’s no need for uninstallers—when you get rid of an app it goes away completely. There’s no fear in adding apps to the iPad in the way that many users fear adding apps to their computers. Apps can be disposed of quickly and easily. To the user, this is liberating. The iPad is a computer than no one fear to break.
Yes, that means that developers must follow Apple’s rules. And yes, Apple has admittedly been less than consistent in how they enforce those rules. But the rules are not arbitrary. They are to control the platform, but not just to the benefit of Apple. This walled-garden approach benefits users as well.
The iPad is not a closed ecosystem though. Remember when Google announced their Chrome OS project? The tech world swooned at a tablet that did nothing but run web apps. Think of the iPad being a version of that tablet with an additional proprietary app store bolted on. The iPad can run any given web app, and it runs them well. The same technology that powers the iPad’s browser also powers the browser for Android devices. And Google’s Chrome. And the new Blackberry 6 browser. That means that the iPad is part of a huge meta-platform that can run web apps that run across just about every device out there. Web apps won’t necessarily replace native apps—at least not yet, but they do give developers virtually unlimited freedom.
But the iPad doesn’t run Flash! So what?
I’ll be blunt. Flash is a pile of crap. I don’t miss having Flash on my iPad, because I don’t even use Flash on my desktop. The Mac OS X version of Flash is slow, buggy, and annoying. I have Flash content blocked by default on every one of my computers, and virtually never unblock it.
Flash is old technology. It belongs in the scrap heap with Java Applets and Microsoft’s Active X. The future lies in HTML5, a completely open standard not controlled by any one company. Flash is a dead man walking, but Adobe has yet to figure that out.
Now, I could be wrong. Maybe Adobe will get Flash working so well on Android that Apple’s devices will be at a competitive disadvantage because they won’t run all the great apps written in Flash.
And maybe a naked Angelina Jolie will parachute into my backyard with a suitcase full of $100 bills.
Flash is a dying platform that’s being quickly overtaken by better and more advanced technologies. Steve Jobs is right to chuck it out. The App Store does not need a bunch of slow, buggy, third-rate apps that depend on Adobe’s notoriously slow development cycle when Apple updates iPhone OS. Apple’s been down that road before, and they’re not doing it again.
The lack of Flash isn’t a glaring omission from the iPad, it’s a feature. The web will embrace HTML5 long before Apple feels the need to embrace Flash. If Adobe were smart, they’d be embracing HTML5 too. There are enough good and innovative developers at Adobe that they could do it if they’d stop staring into the rearview mirror.
Welcome to the iPad World
The iPad is a revolutionary device. It is just as polished as Apple’s other offerings, and being based on mature technologies, it’s more polished than a first-generation product normally is. It’s a device that once used quickly becomes indispensable. The critics tend not to understand it, and keep trying to compare it to devices that are not comparable. Just like the original iPhone, the critics will end up owning one or more of them in a few years.
The iPad is the future of computing. The desktop metaphor is no longer the only game in town. Apple is betting their future on the idea that computing will become less about desktops and laptops and more about small devices connected to the “cloud” of internet-based applications. And just like the iPhone, Apple has taken a product that hadn’t yet had a breakout devices and created something that will have everyone else scrambling to catch up. Even if Apple somehow fails (and the one million iPads sold in a month say that’s not going to happen), they have left their mark on the industry. Look at the iPad. That’s what computers of the future will look like.