Friday, January 29, 2010

iPad Redux

As long as I've waited for something like the iPad and its competitors to come along, I can't help but marvel at (and comment about) all its detractors, most of which haven't even gotten one in their hands yet, let alone used one significantly.

I'm not exactly a fanatical Apple fanboy, though I do own several Macs, a couple of iPhones, and a host of Apple accessories (well, between my wife and I we do, anyway). I'm coming up on two decades in the technology field, and at the time I made the switch to an all-Mac home life, was well enough educated in the ways of computers and operating systems to make an informed choice. I strongly believe that the best system is a heterogeneous, single platform implementation if all the necessary components are available. As such, once I went Mac, I never went back (my progression, in case you're wondering, was Windows --> Linux --> Mac OS X).

I say all this to lay off the detractors who will read this and say, "Oh, he loves anything Apple does." Not true. Case in point, I think they really screwed the consumer by leaving the microphone off of the iPod Touch. I understand why they did it, but it was cheap on their part. The small percentage of people that would actually hack the thing to use as a telephone aren't in the crowd that AT&T wants as customers anyway, so why disable an otherwise decent product that way?

But I digress. The iPad (I would have preferred "iSlate," but prefer "iPad" to "iTablet") as shown has its ups and downs, but even if Apple didn't knock it out of the park on the first swing, they've definitely hit a triple. Sure, it doesn't have multitasking, but neither does the iPhone, and I can be on a phone call and check Google maps at the same time. Or I can browse the web while listening to music from my library. No, I can't listen to Pandora or use any two third-party apps at the same time, but that's a software fix. We're sixty days out from release of the product. My bet is no later than this summer, we'll see an iPhone OS update that includes multitasking for third party apps. The testing for these apps will be rigorous by necessity, as any runaway background processes could really compromise core functionality of the device (if you can't receive phone calls because your WoW client has taken over all available memory, that's a problem).

The iPad is also, in this flagship version, missing a USB port. Remember back when Apple was the first manufacturer to stop putting floppy drives in machines? Oh my god, how are we going to get files from one place to another? Do you care now? I didn't think so. Comparing a USB port, which enables a variety of peripherals, to a single-format storage device isn't quite fair. My point is that Apple, as a designer, has an understanding of what the intended use of their product is. They've tested, talked to focus groups, and refined their design until it fits exactly where they want it to. If people watching the release announcement can't understand how on Earth they're going to print out Word documents from their iPad, then a) they're probably missing some key pieces of information, and b) they probably don't get the big picture. As a veteran technology implementor, I see this and other similar devices as a great leap forward to the Holy Grail of a paperless office. Oh, we'll never actually get there, but we can get closer. Do you know how many reams of paper are printed, handed out in meetings, only to be completely ignored and discarded as soon as the meeting is over? Mid-sized corporations could easily save $500 in reproduction and disposal costs over a year just by handing these things out to their management staff. So, if the iPad can't connect to a printer, maybe it will force people to re-think the way they handle documents.

The issue about lack of storage expansion, via some form of flash memory slot, sticks in my craw as much as it does many others. But really, given the history of Apple's consumer devices (iPods, iPhones), did anyone really think they were going to be able to buy a base model iPad, drop a flash card in it, and bypass the purchase of a premium model? Not likely. But as I pointed out in my previous post, storage probably won't be as much of an issue as people suspect. If the iPad comes with the ability to stream music and video out of shared iTunes libraries, then an AppleTV takes on a whole new role in a house with an iPad in every kid's room, one in the den and one in the living room.

Overall, I think the most egregious omission from the design of the iPad as shown is a web camera. Again, it probably has to do with the lack of AT&T's network ability to handle the load of millions of simultaneous teleconferences. AT&T has recently announced that they are beefing up their network to better support iPhone traffic, which to me smacks of a "wait and see" attitude regarding the availability of a Verizon-based iPad. Sticking with us? We'll enhance our network. So Apple has two aces in the hole now: threatening a switch to Verizon and threatening to drown their network in video traffic by including a web cam in a future version of the iPad.

So, no matter all the bilge being pumped around regarding the horrible design Apple has shown called the iPad, I'm still anxious to see how it plays in the coming months. Techies decry its lack of expansion capability and its inability to do two things at once. The greatest segment of its target market, though, doesn't include someone who can wax philosophically about the pros and cons of the A4 processor versus the Atom. Instead, the most prevalent purchasers of the iPad will be people that like technology without being technologists; those who want to reduce the amount of crap they carry around with them, and could have probably replaced their laptop with a netbook, but were looking for technology that worked more like they did rather than just a bit of shrinkage. I predict that people will find quickly that they really never print from the thing, and if they need to, there are work arounds; that the storage issue isn't really a big deal; and that the form factor is perfectly right-sized for ninety percent of the things they do with the thing. It won't replace people's laptops, nor will it replace their phones. The iPad is designed to do what it's going to do well: fill in a gap in the technology continuum that has been open for far too long. And if someone really needs a tablet that does something the iPad doesn't, then there will be a wide field of competitors to choose from.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

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