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.