Thursday, February 04, 2010


I am going to be a little unhappy writing about the Apple iPad.

Unfortunately, the internet is not going to shut up, nor will the device simply go away. So here we are.

At some point, and I am not sure precisely when this occurred, Apple gained what it - and others - seem to take for the power to decide what people want. If you buy into the theory of the "Steve Jobs reality distortion field" perhaps they had it from the beginning. It doesn't make a lot of difference to what I am about to say. I believe that the success of the iPod and iTunes have gone to Apple's collecitve head, and now it believes that it has the power to shape the market and succeed as long as there is enough, um, Apple? in their solution to a perceived problem or void in the market. I have probably commented on the glaring repeat omissions of the iPod (FM tuner/recorder and microphone, for the most part), but these are pretty trivial in light of what the iPod has and continues to have : a best (or near-best) in industry interface, a trend which they have managed to continue with the iPod touch and iPhone, and iTunes (the gold standard in digital distribution, despite what you could (and what I WOULD) say about DRM). In short, a smooth and cohesive user experience for most people. But the iPod is as much a historical phenomenon as it is a triumph of design and marketing; the arrival of widespread broadband combined with increasingly cheap storage and audio compression (and what I really mean here is the ultimate confluence of the three: Napster) pretty much set the stage for the popularization of portable mp3 player hardware.

Flush with the success of iPod as not only a product and a cultural phenomenon, Apple now had the ear of the common man and woman as never before. Presenting a unified brand that does not, and perhaps cannot exist anywhere else in the computing/consumer electronics industry, Apple has a unique opportunity: it can at once unify and attack a thousand disparate vendors ("PC") almost without reprisal. It is very hard to explain to a largely non-technical audience within its thirty-second attention span that the strength of the PC as a platform is not a single application or hardware device, but rather the plethora of options available to the consumer. Furthermore, it might be the truth, but it's pretty terrible advertising strategy to tell someone that they ought to choose your platform because - hey - you could also buy something similar from someone else at a competitive price! In war - in any conflict - the ability to choose the time and place of a battle is not the single greatest tactical asset, but I'm pretty sure Sun-Tzu ranked it as "pretty friggin important, you guys". Apple has that power.

Taken together, Apple's position looks pretty good: they can at least manufacture desire, and they can (metaphorically speaking) manipulate the terrain on which the battle for your dollars takes place.

Enter the iPad.

It's like an iPod touch for people with pockets of unusual size ("I doubt they exist")

I think it's funny that Steve Jobs should promote this device by trashing the netbook, because the iPad is going to take portable electronics down a path which will be just as unsatisfying as that which we embarked upon after the release of Asus' eeepc. In the case of the latter, the eventual problem which arose was that people sort of expected these tiny things to be like a notebook computer, only smaller. As it turned out, they were often too slow, had too little RAM, and probably suffered from less-than-ideal build quality. With the iPad, the thinking seems to go that Apple should be able to dodge this bullet by making a smartphone bigger and faster, rather than making a laptop smaller and slower. I don't think it's going to work (don't get me wrong: it's going to sell and it's going to be influential, but I don't think it will be magical), because what they are essentially delivering is pocket-sized functionality at messenger-bag size . The only way I could be wrong is if the ebook and online newsreading functionality finally catalyses the death of print media. The problem with that angle is that the death of paper is an event which I imagine will be concurrent with the advent of viable nuclear fusion reactors (which is to say, "perpetually 50 years away"). What I want from a portable device is either going to work on a smartphone ("where is the nearest indian restaurant, and is it any good?", "what IS the name of that song?", "what time is my flight?", etc) OR I'm going to want a laptop ("I want to go to this LAN party", "I want to write a blog post*"...). I'm not sure that the void in the market posited by Steve Jobs really exists. I do think that he has created a need for these products, but it's not you and me who need them; It's Apple's competitors.

*Only real keyboards need apply, smarty-pantses.

No one wants to be caught with their pants down when there's money to be made, so within days of the iPad's physical launch we are already guaranteed to see the inevitable Attack of the Clones. These will have more functionality, and less (depending on your measures). What they won't do - as we have seen with netbooks - is address the shortcomings of the form factor. My inclination would be to say that it could be done with hardware more akin to that of an ultraportable notebook (ie. the macbook air, which I will get to in a moment), but then convertible tablet PCs have been around for a while now and yet they still seem to 1) cost too much and 2) not be very prevalent. The price of the Apple tablet is at once commendible - because it seems to be a departure from the parsec-wide profit margin on most of their products - and contemptible - because that headroom is no longer available for other vendors to spend on cramming more stuff into their competing devices. The worst of it is that the feature I'd actually like to see catch on - the iPad's IPS* LCD screen - is the kind of part whose price is only justifiable if 1) you're Apple or 2) your customer base knows and cares what that means. The higher-quality display is likely the first thing on the chopping block when another vendor asks "how can I undercut this iPad thing?", in fact. That said, I wish Apple had also made a move to higher screen resolutions. 1024 x 768? What is this, 1990?

* IPS stands for In-Plane Switching. It is one of several approaches to building an LCD screen, and it is by most estimates the best in terms of image quality, viewing angle, and colour accuracy. Of course, it is also the most expensive.

Perhaps I have not made a compelling enough case that you will not have any real reason to use an iPad should you buy one. Allow me to quote my friend ELI  (whom you may remember), who was present for much of the time I spent writing this post. One of his first responses to my claims that the iPad would not be very useful was "no; it'll be good for doing...tablet things". Tablet Things, indeed. Later, he adopted the opinion that the e-reading functionality of the iPad and its ilk could be employed to reduce the mighty burden of heavy textbooks, which is not altogether a bad notion. There are probably small fortunes riding now on whether Apple can seal the deal that Amazon has yet to clinch with its own Kindle, and there is at least a potential analogy to the success of the iPod here. Of course, pre-iPod mp3 players were built by companes that you probably haven't heard of (Ricoh, anyone?). It would be hard to argue that Sony and Amazon are so obscure! Furthermore, while the iPad could indeed act as a pretty sweet textbook replacement, is it really going to stand in for your laptop when it comes time to write a paper? Is the interface so much better than that of a laptop for reading ebooks that you and your classmates would justify dropping AT LEAST $500 on top of what you already spent on a laptop (and then you STILL have to buy your textbooks, which aren't likely to be that much cheaper in ebook format)? Maybe if the universities could find out how to subsidize the readers, but what would the motivation be in that case? A grand corporate kickback from Apple? On top of all this, if you're a student you're going to "need" a cellphone, too, unless Jobs/Apple were lying and you CAN use the iPad as a phone*. I thought this product was supposed to be about FILLING a niche!

*Boy, if you thought the infamous taco-phone looked silly held to the ear...

I mentioned earlier the macbook air, which I'd like to examine in comparison to the iPad in terms of product launches. It didn't reinvent computing, it was just a laptop that you could fit in a manilla envelope. It didn't have enough ports (mostly it needed more USB), and the lack of an integral CD/DVD drive is kind of lame, but you make tradeoffs. What I think was good about the macbook air is that what it DID do was start an arms race where the goal was to contain the performance of an existing laptop within a thinner, lighter package. The 12-14" space is about the size where a laptop might not have gaming cohones, but can still support a real man's x86 processor and 4 gigs of ram and a keyboard that doesn't suck. In short, they issued a challenge to developers to make an already-useful platform more mobile (in some ways, more useful). If you'll note what I said about the apparent design philosophy of the iPad, you'll see where I'm going with this: Apple's challenge to other vendors is to take an already-useful platform and make it LESS mobile*.

* Even were someone to put laptop guts into a keyboardless slate-type device, that's just an instance of taking existing hardware and making it flat-out LESS USEFUL.

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