Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, January 30, 2010

definitive iPad thoughts

John Gruber is one of my favorite tech commentators, but he’s not doing so well with the iPad. He has divided the world into those who “get it” (i.e., adore the iPad) and those who “don’t get it.” This is an old Andrew Sullivan move, and one of the more annoying ones. Saying “you just don't get it” is not an argument; in fact, it’s a straightforward refusal to discuss an issue rationally.

Gruber and others — Stephen Fry, for instance — have said that it’s impossible to understand just how fabulous the iPad is until you hold it in your hands. In one sense I’m sure that’s true, but let’s remember that holding a device in your hands for twenty minutes (which is how long Gruber got) is not the same as using it day in and day out. Let’s think about this one task at a time:

Typing. How much typing are you going to want to do on the iPad? Even in Apple’s promotional video the guy looks awkward, pecking with three or four fingers with the device propped on his lap. You’re only going to be able to do short emails, texts, tweets — anything more and you’ll need to use the (optional) keyboard and dock. But to do that you’ll have to sit at a desk: it won't balance on your lap the way a laptop does. And then how much typing will you want to do on a screen that’s about the size of the original Macintosh’s?

Moreover, much of my writing is done while switching back and forth between my browser — where I read things that make me think, copy and paste quotations, and post links — and my text editor. Writing this post on an iPad would be a major pain in the neck, and this is just a blog post, not a novel.

I think even the biggest iPad fans are likely to concede this point — they will presumably retort that the iPad is basically a media consumption device. But have they thought about how much time we spend on our computers typing?

Okay, then, on to the media.

Music. First of all, you’ll need to make sure that you get an iPad with enough memory to hold a good bit of your music collection, at least until Apple moves to cloud-based music storage (which is bound to happen). But even if you do, you’re probably only going to be able to listen to the music while sitting down, likely with the iPad in your lap, or right next to you. In other words, this won't be significantly different from listening on your laptop, and therefore won't be nearly as convenient as listening on an iPod.

Photos. Photos will definitely be fun to look at on the iPad. How much time do you spend doing that?

Movies. This would seem to be a strength of the iPad, except that its 4.3 format significantly reduces the available size for widescreen films. Good, but not great. Movies are going to look a lot better on your laptop.

Web browsing. I hate Flash with a passion, but it is all over the internet, and that’s going to lead to a lot of frustration. It’s not just a matter of the games you can't play — Apple likes that, because it encourages you to buy games from their App Store — but think of all the retailers whose sites are Flash-based. (Come to think of it, maybe Apple likes that too: if you can't shop at J. Crew, that leaves you with more money to spend at the iTunes Store.)

Calendar. Apple seems to be making a big deal out of the iPad’s calendar, which is pretty sad. No doubt it looks really cool, but won't it almost always be a great deal more convenient to look at the calendar on your smartphone?

Getting work done. The one thing that I saw in the videos that I really like is the iPad version of Keynote. It would be great fun to create a Keynote presentation on the iPad — maybe when you’re traveling and didn't even know that you were going to need one — plug it into a projector, and wow people. But a great many of my Keynote presentations are made by copying and pasting text and images from my browser and from other applications on my computer. How easy is that going to be on a computer that can't have multiple applications open? And how much of the information (especially text-based information) that you need will even be on the iPad? It’s probably back home on your iMac or MacBook, which at some point in your travels you’ll probably be wishing you had with you.

So, in short: I have major doubts about the utility, for most users, of the iPad. There isn't a single thing it does that isn't done better by other products in the Apple lineup.

And one more comment: everyone who is sold on this device is trying to refute the critics — people like me who “just don't get it” — by quoting all the people who dismissed the iPhone. But let’s remember two things: first, some of us who are skeptical about the iPad were really enthusiastic about the iPhone, right from its first appearance; and second, I don't notice anyone quoting the people who predicted that the Apple TV would be a failure, or that the MacBook Air would be a fringe product. Not all of Apple’s products have done what the iPhone has done.

So for what it’s worth, my prediction: over the long haul, the iPad will be a minor success, but not a game-changer. It will be a heck of a lot more popular than the Apple TV, but nothing like the iPhone. And many of the people who buy them will within three months be setting them aside to gather dust, because they’ll discover that they’re happier with their smaller but utterly portable iPhones. I have a feeling that this time next year there will be a great many iPads available on eBay.


  • Do you have any more thoughts on the iPad as an e-reader? I thought the footage of its book application looked great.

  • Judicious take, as always.

    What Apple needs is a Microsoft Surface type product (that's cost-effective), so that we can drag text/photos/etc back and forth between multiple devices easily. It wouldn't solve the problems that come from being on the road, but it would help make it easier to have multiple devices that perform more narrow functions well.

  • Matthew: that would be a nice move, but nothing of the kind seems to be forthcoming.

    David: I don't think any backlit screen will ever be good for long-form reading. Too hard on the eyes. Also, you can hold modern e-readers in one hand and use your thumb to turn the page, but it looks like with the iPad you'll have to hold it in one hand and swipe with the other.

  • Professor: A logical, thorough, even-handed and even sympathetic review from a known Mac/iPhone advocate. Thank you. As I thought about it this week, whilst schlepping over-stuffed bags through major domestic airports, I did come up with one reasonable application for the iPad: Corporate drones like me, forced to carry their crappy Thinkpads around, but who still want to access to their personal email accounts and media (simply unavailable through most corporately-governed laptops) on something more substantial than their iPhones might be inclined go the iPad route. I have spent the week with both my HP laptop and my MacBook Pro on my shoulder. Even w/its limitations, using an iPad on the road is at least worth a look.

  • Can you say "Newton?"

  • "I have a feeling that this time next year there will be a great many iPads available on eBay."

    I agree with you that I think the iPad will be a minor success, but the availability of them on Ebay doesn't really signify much as there are a number of MacBook Pros and iPod Touches available on Ebay.

  • I can say Newton, but that doesn't bring it back.

    Brad, don't take me too literally: that was a metaphorical way of saying that I suspect people will tire of their iPads after a little while. There's a lot of everything on eBay.

    Jeff, I totally hear you, and I can think of similar uses for the thing myself. For instance, I'm going to be teaching for a couple of weeks at Regent College in Vancouver this summer, and wouldn't it be nice just to bring along the iPad with Keynote presentations and notes and all. Heck, I might even do it.

  • I know you were using it metaphorically, I just thought it was a poor choice for a metaphor since, as you say, "There's a lot of everything on eBay."
    Of course, I'm just being picky. I really think this is an excellent article and one of the most balance and fair looks at the iPad and it's use as a general-purpose computing device. Thanks for taking Gruber to task!

  • This seems pretty much spot-on. One of my students works in an Apple store and said that he and his fellow workers were mocking it after the intro.

  • I agree. The iPad, for all its innovation, brings personal computing closer to television-watching. User passivity, "channels" of content and functionality, etc.

  • I totally agree that laptops are better at most things, and iPhones are much more portable. However, I think the iPad has the potential to be a game-changer, or perhaps more accurately, a "game-creator". When the iPod Touch was originally announced, I thought the same thing. It doesn't do this, doesn't do that, and an iPhone would be better for almost every reason. Now, the iPod Touch is amazingly versatile and extremely popular. I use mine for everything.
    My thought is that to some extent, people adapt to devices. I know probably hundreds of people who want an Apple computer but think that the price is too high. They are strictly consumers when it comes to what they use a computer for. I wouldn't be surprised if most of them bought an iPad.
    In other words, I think that technology has finally advanced enough to make this breed of devices successful. We are going to see incredible new versions of this device over the next few years. I hate speculating about technology, and I am not completely sold on the iPad yet, but I would not be surprised if it turns out to be a major "game-changer".

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  • I'm a Windows guy, but I was blown away by the ipod touch after looking at a friends--and so I bought one. The ipad seemed like an intriguing idea, but from reading about it it seems pretty useless to me as a college student. I'd much rather have a Kindle or a netbook and ~$200

  • Alan, I hate to say it, but, you just don't get it. What a poor article.

  • Great commentary and analysis! I hope that you'll permit some counterpoints in an extended response. And I think you should reconsider your position on the overall feel of the device, something I'll get to at the end.


    Many pundits said that the iPhone's keyboard wouldn't work and should have been a physical one. They were proven wrong. Similarly, I will wager that this keyboard turns out to be quite good--agreed, not the same as full physical keyboard--but the comparison should be with cramped, tiny smartphone and low-end netbook keyboards. It'll be much better than those.


    Right, you won't go jogging with it as you would with an iPad :-), but you could exercise next to it or listen to podcasts and you wouldn't have to be sitting down. That depends on its volume, but there will be speaker accessories.


    Many do spend more than we do with their picture albums. The iPad will bring back an easy way of showing off photos; and the desktop photo display when not in use will be cool, too. Sure, looking at photos might only be a portion of time the device is used -- but isn't the same true about photos on your desktop or laptop computer?


    OK, different aspect ratio, but two people huddled together on a couch will enjoy the iPad much more than a laptop! The viewing angle is great, there won't be a hot keyboard in one person's lap, etc. The screen is reportedly gorgeous, so it could be a great movie viewing platform.

    Web Browsing

    Ah, come on now. The Flash critique is overrated and ignores the downsides-- the crashes, the problems, the slow downs, etc. With html 5, Flash will prove less needed--and with this device more web sites will turn to Quick time and other renderings-- or Adobe will finally get its act together and clean up Flash's problems.


    On this incredibly, multipurpose device, of course, we want our calendars--in fact, it's more like an old fashioned calendar and the display options are much better than on any smartphone. With easy multi-touch, and multiple calendars, everyone in a family can keep track of everyone else's schedule. In fact, with this app, the iPad may become date central and the iPhone or IPTs a satellite accessory.

    Getting Work Done

    Who wants to do work, anyway? :-)

    Actually, the redesigned iWork apps are incredible and will help productivity. Now, *you* may be into copy-and-paste writing (although that's truly frowned upon in the academic world and so is surprising coming from a professor), but switching between apps is easy! So, this one was an over-stated critique. In any event, this device isn't being marketed as a laptop, workplace device--at least not for many offices. It will be great though in many arenas--school, medicine, stocks, etc. And much of the public will use it for their everyday at home computer.

    Overall Feel

    This matters far more than any individual feature one dissects. There is a magic to the multi-touch interface and scaling it up to the iPad size does qualitatively change the game.

    Just watching that New York Times demo shows the power--and wonder--of the device (embedded color video, touch to change the number of columns and the text automatically reflows, etc.). Textbooks will be great on the thing. Add in the ebook and gaming experiences and you've got a winner!

  • I think there's a number of people with cognitive or fine motor disabilities that are going to be given access to software in a way they haven't been with a keyboard or in Ipod/phone.

  • Good point, Julana!

  • I don't normally post to these threads but enjoy the content. However, in this case I would like to bring up one issue.

    I don't hear anyone talking about how economical and functional this device could be as a satellite to an iMac.

    Imagine, the family iMac with multiple profiles or maybe a couple of Macs in the household. Two or three middle to high school aged kids in the family. For those folks, this device will be great for web usage, research and homework. Many households will find this device to be an excellent solution to their young students needs rather than buying kids a cheap PC laptop that is plagued with the typical PC performance and software issues or the more expensive MacBook.

    At $9.99/each for the iWorks components that's a bargain compared to MS Office. I assume Instant Messaging will work on this device so that will be an attraction for kids and parents. I do wonder if some consumers will decide to go with a basic cell phone and this device instead.

    I think this device will be a winner with multiple purchased for situations like the one I described.

  • Very well written comments about how the iPad is not that magical. What it truely magical is how successful Apple is at marketing products. Touch input has been around for decades. To this day, it only has limited uses for user input. Touch works when there is a controlled and limited input, and the application is used for a short duration. Example are ATM, restaurant table reservation software, and information kioks. The future of touch will combine gesture with pen input. The keyboard will have to be left out because it is unnatural to bounce between touch and a keyboard. The Microsoft Courier looked really promising since it was touch and pen with no keyboard. It also folded in half to protect the two screens; really clever. It is really too bad the Courier was canceled. That looked like a game changer.

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