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iPad Envy

April 3, 2010

Anyone who’s been near the internet in the last few weeks cannot fail to have heard of the iPad – Apple’s soon-to-be-released* tablet device, first announced in January after waves of online speculation.

The Birth of the tablet computer?

The iPad, Apple’s answer to the tablet PC, is the latest in a fairly impressive line of products that includes the iPhone, several generations of iMac and MacBook, and of course the iPod. Just like its predecessors, the iPad is billed as a revolutionary device that will enhance our digital lives by making them more intuitive, more colourful, and more deliciously simple and user friendly that they were before.

However, despite its good breeding the iPad is yet to receive the same levels of adoration from internet punters as the iPhone did when it was first announced. People went crazy for the iPhone. By way of example, someone I was at school with followed the live webcast of the iPhone launch while practically frothing at the mouth, which caused some comment since he was in the school IT room at the time. Though I have little doubt that he, along with other dedicated Apple fanboys including my uncle and Stephen Fry (check out his wonderful iPad article in Time Magazine), are sufficiently lusting after this product, most people aren’t. Not yet anyway. This I can deduce because, as a fairly dedicated fanboy myself, I haven’t been lusting after it and know few who have. In fact, out of the people I know who are of a similar technological persuasion to myself, I’d have trouble picking one who I could say with certainty would rather go without food for several weeks than not own an iPad as soon as he could. That’s the sort of fanboy dedication we’ve come to expect of those in the Apple clan, and aside from the fundamentalists I’ve not seen much of it.

But is this a problem for Apple, or does it play right into their perfectly manicured hands? Though the interest hasn’t been fanatical, it is difficult to deny the persistent low-level ‘background noise’ coverage that has followed the iPad around the internet in the weeks since that keynote of January 27th. Even though the thing isn’t even on sale yet its name is everywhere, from a trending topic on Twitter to an advert next to your hotmail that says ‘shoot 5 iPads to win your own’, or whatever. Widely adored it may not be, but it’s definitely there.

And that’s the clever bit. Apple have deliberately left a fairly long delay between the iPad’s announcement and its release (remember that most iPods were available within a few days of their keynote announcements, and the iPhone only took longer because of network sign up concerns – an issue that will affect 3G iPads but not Wi-Fi only models). In doing so they have given everyone enough time to 1) get used to the iPad, 2) fashionably ignore it or make fun of its name , 3) debate it, and finally 4) seriously consider buying it. Personally I’m on phase 3, but if I didn’t already have a MacBook that worked perfectly well I might be closer to phase 4, and I’ll tell you for why.

What looks wrong with it, and why you need to look closer.

Firstly, unlike the iPhone which was trying to break into an existing market, the iPad is trying to do some proper revolutionary stuff. Tablet PCs have never been big before, either because they just didn’t exist, or because people didn’t know about them or want them. Laptops came in, and then netbooks, and people have been happy with them so far. What Steve Jobs and his team have tried to do, as he explained in the keynote, is to make a product to bridge the gap between what computers can do and what phones and other handheld products can do, all the while doing it far better than netbooks have ever been able to. They see a niche here, and they’re trying to fill it with the iPad.

All good so far, but as a simple student I see a practical flaw with this particular niche. In the keynote Steve talks about how the iPad does photos, videos and the internet better and slicker than netbooks do. Fine, can’t argue with that, but if the iPad’s supposed to be a proper computing device, and not just a large iPod Touch, then surely it needs to do more than just the pretty stuff. The only useful thing demonstrated in the keynote that I remember was email.

This was a serious flaw in the product for me. How could the iPad claim to be a serious computing device if you can’t do proper work on it? The way I saw it, if I were to take an iPad to my university library I’d probably have fun for about half an hour showing everyone what it can do, but then they’d go back to typing up their notes and leave me alone with my toy. Doesn’t seem so revolutionary now does it? However, if you check out the ‘guided tours‘ section of the iPad’s page you’ll find a selection of videos that walk you through how various iPad functions work. Out of the 11 videos there are 3 on there that got me properly excited.

I’m referring of course to the iPad versions of ‘Pages’, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Keynote’. These are Apple’s own word processing, spreadsheet and slideshow programs, and having used them on my MacBook (particularly Pages, which beats Word for Mac hands down), seeing them on the iPad completely changed my view of the product. I’m not going to gush about these apps and what they do; instead I urge you to go and check them out for yourself, because I bet even if you’re a Windows fanboy you’ll be impressed. As for me, now I can really see what the fuss is about. Where before I saw the iPad as something fun but lacking in seriousness, I now see the iPad as a proper revolution in technology. The device that I thought was just an oversided iPod-slash-digital photo frame is actually a bona fide tablet computer with capability far beyond what I realised a few weeks ago, and that’s just the in-house apps. When the developers have got their own iPad apps into the App Store the possibilities really will be endless.

I’d like to end this slightly overlong iPad piece by mentioning something that Stephen Fry says in the article I mentioned above. He talks about the emotional relationship that Apple’s intends us to have with our devices. Yes it’s just technology, but when you use something as often as you use, for example, your mobile phone, you do get emotionally attached to it. This is true nowhere more-so than with Apple. They take that user-product relationship right to the core of their products. They make sure that it’s their job to sort out all the clever technological bits, and they leave you free to enjoy what is as close to the perfect user experience as it gets. The iPad is the latest device aiming to surpass the incredibly high standards we’ve come to expect from Apple, and in this fanboy’s opinion Apple have nailed it once again. Bravo!

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*I started writing this before it was released, and as I’m posting it the iPad is available to buy. Who’da thunkit.

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