Goldilocks and the iPad

By Rich Rosen
February 12, 2010

A grim fairy tale about why a compromise in between "too big" and "too small" isn't always "just right."

(Despite what people seem to be saying, I'm really not hating on the iPad. I'm just disappointed that it's not the breakthrough device it could have and should have been. So here's a little fable inspired by Grimm's Fairy Tales to explain why I feel the way I do.)

Once upon a time, there was a tech-savvy girl named Goldilocks who lived in the Black Forest. She owned an iPhone and a kickass 17" MacBook Pro. The iPhone went everywhere with Goldilocks, much like Mary and her lamb (which is another story for another time). The MacBook, however, was too big to carry around everywhere. And even if she did happen to have it with her, it was a chore taking it out of its carrying case and trying to use it on the train or plane. (Goldilocks commuted and traveled a lot for her job, as a pre-sales engineer for the German tech giant DreiBären.com.)

On the other hand, even though the iPhone went everywhere with her, it was difficult to use for all the things she wanted to use it for: reading books, watching movies, responding to emails, editing documents, etc., because it was (wait for it...) too small.

Meanwhile, a man named Steve who lived in the Apfelgarten just outside the Siliziumtaler was busy working with his friends on a revolutionary new device that would warm the cockles of Goldilocks' heart (and hopefully the hearts of millions of other tech-savvy folk like her), in a little gingerbread house off of Endlosschleife Strasse. Goldilocks had read about this new device on the Wald Wide Web, and was anxiously awaiting Steve's formal announcement of it. Finally, she hoped to herself out loud, I will be able to do everything I want with my tech gadgets without them being either too small or too big.

Then one fine day, Steve gathered all the woodland creatures together at the GutenGrasse Center to show them the new device. He began his presentation with a story Goldilocks was all too familiar with: it was the tale of how she met her current employers. "The first chair was TOOOOO cold... the second bowl of porridge was TOOOOO soft... but the third bed was JUUUUUUST RIGHT..." Goldilocks yawned, she had lived through all this, and no one who told the story ever got it quite right. But whatever. Show us the device already...

And finally there it was: the iPad. And all the woodland creatures gasped in awe as Steve's Realitätverzerrungfelder engulfed them. The birds tweeted their approval. The squirrels snapped photos and posted them to their photo library site, Nutcrackr. The deer were transfixed like... like deer in the headlights. And the owls posted wise notes to their blogs about how amazing a moment this was, how it represented a new era of ubiquitous portable computing and blah blah blah.

Then Steve got the crowd involved. He held up his MacBook Pro and said "This device is..."

And the crowd responded in unison, "Too big!"

Then he held up his iPhone and said "And this device is..."

To which the crowd responded, "Too small!"

And then he held up the iPad. "But this device is..."

"Just right!"

At this point, just as Steve was about to introduce the Naked Emperor to close out the ceremony, Goldilocks stood up and said "Excuse me..." Steve was startled as Goldilocks continued. "Does this mean I will no longer need to carry my iPhone around with me?"

"Oh, no, no, no," said Steve. "This device isn't a phone. You will still need your iPhone for the usual telephone functionality."

"But I won't need to carry around my MacBook anymore, right?"

"Well, this device will make reading books and watching movies and typing and such a lot easier because it's bigger than the iPhone, right? But if you have any more sophisticated uses for your laptop, or if you're planning to do any serious typing and such for any length of time, you'll probably still need that too."

"So, in other words, instead of consolidating the number of devices I will need to carry around with me, you have made it so I will need to carry one more device around with me. And now that I will have an additional device to maintain and synchronize with my other devices, instead of making my devices do more work for me, you are making me do more work for my devices. You're giving me a device that is a compromise on size but ultimately doesn't do the set of tasks associated with either a smartphone or a laptop very well, if it does them at all. How does that qualify as 'just right'?"

At this point the woodland creatures in the audience interrupted their praising of the Naked Emperor's fine fashion sense and began to boo loudly. Goldilocks was hoisted up by the angry crowd who, after determining that she weighed the same as a duck, took her away to be burned at the stake. The end.

* * *

Understand that I am the furthest thing from an Apple basher (or, in Goldilocks' tongue, "ein apfelschläger"). I've been using Macs for the past 25 years. I have more Macs in my home than most people have computers of any kind. My MacBook is my main personal computer and I have repeatedly called it "the best computer I have ever owned." I co-authored a book on Mac OS X. I own an iPhone. I mock Microsoft Windows in all its incarnations regularly and with gusto. If anything, I am far more obsequious Apple fanboy than Apple basher, by a long shot.

When I express disappointment about the iPad, it is not because I hate Apple, it is because I respect and admire Apple, and because I think that this device is far beneath what they are capable of and what they should have produced for us. Apple has created a device that is not a replacement for or a next-generation version of existing devices—it is a new mostly redundant category of device that is supposed to be a compromise between smartphone and laptop/netbook in terms of size, but in terms of functionality does not adequately perform the tasks associated with either one of those devices. Meaning that instead of consolidating our "gadget footprint", we are expanding it. Meaning that we will have one more device to maintain, to charge, to synchronize. And in tough economic times when a lot of people can't even afford to simply replace their existing devices, Apple is encouraging purchase of an additional separate device.

There are a lot of complaints about the iPad that hit on other issues with the device: in particular that its "closed platform" is a bad thing that represents the beginning of the end for "open" general purpose computers. Nonsense. General purpose computers will continue to thrive for engineers, scientists, artists, architects, musicians and of course, software developers. But as John Maxwell Hobbs of BBC Technology opined, "the computer industry has been forcing developer/hobbyist machines [general purpose computers] on consumers for years."

In other words, most consumers may not need and may not want all the power and complexity of an open general purpose computer, preferring a simpler device that "just works". Yet for years the general purpose computer has been the only option open to such consumers. Most of them would likely prefer the closed system that "just works", providing the powerful functionality that they need day-to-day, to the "open system" that introduces unnecessary risks and complications.

Claiming that such consumers should own open general purpose computers rather than closed systems is the height of geek arrogance, not that different from an auto enthusiast insisting that all cars should have stick shifts and not a "closed" automatic transmission. For these reasons, this prevailing "closed system" complaint about the iPad really isn't one of the things I list among its failings.

Historically, Apple hasn't needed to resort to "emperor's new clothes" tricks to promote new products. The iMac, the iPod, the MacBook, Mac OS X, all spoke for themselves. But if I had a nickel for every time during this presentation that Jobs felt the need to say something like "Isn't that fantastic?" to remind us how fantastic the iPad was ... I could probably spend a whole weekend in front of a slot machine in Atlantic City. Usually Jobs doesn't need to TELL us his new product is fantastic—it's self-evident. A mantra that writing teachers try to instill in their students: "Show, don't tell." Meaning don't tell us a character is stupid, or evil, or handsome—show us through their actions and the actions of those around them. Jobs has regularly followed this mantra throughout his career at Apple and that's one of the reasons his presentations are, as a rule, that good ... but, in my opinion, that's not what he did this time.

So what could the iPad have been that, in the humble opinion of this loquacious blogger, would have made it a truly revolutionary breakthrough device? Well, what if the iPad wasn't an independent device, but rather a Bluetooth accessory that connected to already existing devices like your iPhone and your laptop? What if it wasn't a separate storage device that you had to keep in sync with your other devices? What if it lacked 3G and Wi-Fi capability altogether, but instead used your iPhone for that kind of connectivity? (Hell, it already "lacks" a phone and a camera, having it lack even more would actually drive the price DOWN!)

What if the iPad's Bluetooth let you view, listen to, and edit media and documents stored on your iPhone (or your laptop or desktop computer)? This would mean that you'd only have to sync up between your laptop/desktop and your phone, not introducing a third syncable device into the mix to further complicate your digital life. The touchscreen display could do the very sorts of things Jobs demonstrated to us onstage, using powerful iPad-tailored applications like the iWork suite and the enhanced Email app, but the documents and files operated on (along with the internet connectivity) would come from the iPhone (or possibly the laptop/desktop).

All of this means that there would be no additional layer of synchronization for you, the owner of this additional new device, to manage. It means that when even the iPad would be too much to lug around (i.e., when all you want to carry around is your phone), you would—by virtue of having your iPhone with you—still have all your documents and media at hand. The iPad then becomes not something you HAVE to have with you (like your phone pretty much is now) but something optional that would help you use and manage the data you maintain on your phone more flexibly. Read books and compose emails and watch movies to your heart's content on your "too small" phone when you don't have this iPad accessory with you, but use it for a better UI experience when you do. Options. Not forced dependence on yet another device.

That's something even Goldilocks could honestly say was "just right."


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