The rumors of this product circulated long before the past year. I’ve heard rumors for the past 3 years, but the concept has been swirling around in some form or another since the Apple Newton was discontinued. A similar rumor talked of an Apple netbook, an ultra-portable lower-cost laptop. Apple has made both of those rumors come true with a single product, the iPad.
It’s a computer device a little smaller than a sheet of printer paper, and about half-an-inch thin. That sounds a little on the thick side of thin, but thickness measurements of Apple devices have always been kind of fuzzy. The swept edges make Apple products feel a little more svelte than they actually are, and the iPad is the same in that regard. It’s very sleek.
The iPad is evidence of a trend in computing that is changing how computers integrate into our lives. This trend, simply put, blurs the lines between the computer world and the real world. It’s long been a criticism of computers that they separate you from your real, physical life. For most of the history of computing this has been true. Computers have become more accessible over the years, though. The 90’s saw the rise of cheaper, more useful laptops, designed to give you the experience of a desktop machine through a display, keyboard, trackpad (mouse), and speakers, all of which fit into your lap.
The trend that the iPad represents is a shift away from that type of thinking. This trend asks the question, “Would portable computers be more effective if they weren’t designed in the image of a desktop machine?”
Laptop computers will always have their niche, but I don’t believe they are the best solution for most situations. Think for a moment about what you use your computer for. You browse the web. You probably look at e-mail. There may be some word processing that you do from time to time. You also might use your computer as an entertainment device to listen to music, or watch movies and television shows. These activities cover most of what everyone — even complete computer geeks — do with their computers. We mostly do the same seven or eight things on our computers every day. Some days we do even less.
We spend a lot of money for the ability to do this small number of tasks. We buy machines like laptops to make the experience more convenient, but we end up paying a lot of money for a lot of features we don’t use. We’re also saddled with small inconveniences. Laptops mostly use a clam-shell design that requires opening first, waiting to wake the machine from sleep mode, and then making sure you have an internet connection if you want to do anything internet-related. After all this, you’re getting the same experience you got from your desktop: a separation from the physical world because you have a device that takes up your entire lap. Laptops don’t make it very convenient to spend just a minute or two on something.
Apple was very clear that the iPad would be a different category of computer, and I have to agree with them. Apple has avoided the pitfalls of previous tablet-computer-makers.
One of the criticisms of the iPad is “What makes this so different, anyway? Didn’t we have touch-based computers 10 years ago?” Tablet computers have been available for that long, but available technology is not the same as accessible technology. It doesn’t really matter how innovative something is if people can’t afford it. The high cost always associated with tablet computers hindered widespread adoption. The tablet computers of 10 years ago just weren’t innovative enough to begin to justify their high cost.
While there have been touch-screen computers before, few of them were designed to really leverage the touch capability. The designers of those past devices thought of your finger as an analog for the computer mouse-pointer. That makes logical sense, but it doesn’t make any sense from a usability standpoint. If you compare the size of your finger to the size of your mouse pointer, you’ll notice your finger is a lot bigger. This makes your finger less accurate than a mouse pointer. Interfaces designed for use with a mouse are not at all suitable to navigate with your finger. Your fingertip just doesn’t have the same kind of precision. There’s also the problem of humans having 10 fingers. Previous entries in the tablet computer market could only handle touch with 1 finger at a time. These problems made those devices difficult and frustrating to use.
The iPad, however, uses the same multi-touch technology the iPhone uses. This makes a lot of the common actions like pinching, zooming, and navigating feel very intuitive. You feel that there’s less of a barrier between yourself and the device. For example, how fast you scroll down a page depends on how fast you swipe your finger down the screen. It feels just like you’re reaching into the screen do to precisely what you want. The iPad feels pleasantly futuristic in a ‘Douglas Adams’ sort of way rather than a ‘George Orwell’ or ‘Terry Gilliam’ sort of way.
Those who have used one will know what I’m talking about. Those who have not should try to swing by an Apple store or Best Buy to play with one of the demo units.
The fact that tablet computers never achieved widespread adoption created an unfortunate problem with software availability. Companies didn’t put resources into developing tablet applications. It wasn’t worth it. This meant that even if you did have the money to buy a tablet computer, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do with one. By making the iPad extremely accessible, Apple has made the market for touch-based software large enough so other companies will pay attention, which means a lot more functionality for end users.
Apple also did a very shrewd thing by basing the iPad on their already-existing iPhone. Because the iPad is able to run the same software that runs on the iPhone, there already exists a large ecosystem of applications. Developers already knew how to create iPad applications because they knew how to create iPhone applications. They could also develop their iPad applications before they had the device in their hands because the software development kit was available when the iPad was first announced. By doing this, Apple solved the early-adopter problem.
Early adopters can often feel punished for their forward-thinking ways. They pay more for devices to get them earlier. They also tend to face long delays for new software or content for those devices.
This happened on a large scale a few years ago when the first Blu-Ray players were released. A long time passed before the number of movies increased to the point where people felt it worthwhile to get a Blu-Ray player. Getting an iPad isn’t like that at all. The iPad, out of the box, already has thousands of applications available for it. While only a few hundred applications take full advantage of the iPad’s large screen, more are being released every day.
The iPad is the world’s first computer that is completely, from hardware to software, designed around touch, and released at a price that will make it an easy purchase for many people. It is a significant step forward in reducing the impersonality of computing while increasing its accessibility. It’s a computer designed for those moments in your life when you just can’t be bothered to use a computer. That’s a good thing because it turns out quite a lot of people are in a constant state of not wanting to bother with using computers.
For those of you who’ve gotten an iPad, here’s a good place to start when looking around for apps:
Plants Vs. Zombies HD – This strategy game, previously released on Mac, PC, and iPhone, is by most accounts the best version of the game released. It looks beautiful. It’s fun, and it takes great advantage of the multi-touch.
Star Walk – This app transforms staring up at the night sky from an idle pastime into an educational experience. Holding the iPad up to the sky labels the objects you’re looking at, and the stars on the screen change as you change your angle, direction, or location.
Kindle – If you’re disappointed with the selection on the iBook store then you can use this Amazon Kindle application to read or purchase digital books from the Amazon store. This greatly increases the number of books available to you, and reading books on the iPad is a joy.
NYTimes Crosswords – If you’re going to get one crossword application for your iPad then this is the one to get. The large screen captures the feeling of filling out a crossword better than any other attempt in the history of digital crosswords. Though, even though the application is free, you will have to sign up for a $17/year subscription from within the app to access the puzzles. I still think that’s a great bang for a buck
OmniGraffle – Clocking in at $49.99, this is one of the most expensive iPad apps out there, and I believe it’s worth it if you want to use your iPad to do real work. It allows you to outline, sketch out, or graph your ideas using multi-touch gestures. Your ideas can then be moved around to organize them, and then saved out as a PDF.