Why It's a Big Deal That the iPad is No Big Deal

By Rich Rosen
February 2, 2010 | Comments: 2

Kindle-killer? Maybe. Larger version of the iPhone? No, not really. Revolutionary game-changer? Are you kidding?

Well, it's February 2, Groundhog Day, and this morning Cupertino Carl popped his head out of the ground and saw his shadow—which means another six weeks of endless commentary and debate about the iPad.

I've made no bones about how disappointing I find the iPad. So have a lot of other people. Similarly, a lot of other other people have told those of us complaining about the iPad to shut up, that either we're not seeing the "bigger picture", or we're complaining about the wrong things, or about things that don't really matter.

Granted, there are both praises and complaints regarding the iPad that are baseless, or make no sense, or "don't see the bigger picture." Sure. And there are both praises and complaints that are valid. But for me, there are some complaints in particular that have gone unsaid. So guess what? After delineating the valid from the invalid comments below, I'll tell you what I see as being "wrong" with the iPad.

It's beautiful and elegant. And it's ideally priced.

Gotta agree there. Apple played things very smart by hinting early that the device would be "under $1000". Turns out the base model is under $500. For the right demographic (people who don't already own anything like a Kindle or a netbook), this will be an excellent device to own—as a communal family web portal, a portable media device for reading, watching, and listening, a compromise between netbook and smartphone. (But... read on...)

It's a Kindle-killer.

Only time will tell, but this is perhaps the biggest thing the iPad has going for it—that it does what the Kindle does plus a lot more. It's not just an e-book reader. It's also a media device for watching movies and listening to music. It's also an "Internet appliance" with a great web browser and email client. It's also capable of running "office" applications via custom versions of Apple's iWork software suite. Again, if you don't already have a Kindle or a netbook, and you want something in that vein, this would probably be a great device for you. (And clearly Amazon is not happy about the competition.)

It's just a bigger version of the iPhone/iPod Touch.

Well, if only that were true. It's not really a bigger version of either device. Apple touts how over 140,000 existing iPhone apps will run on the iPad. Oh really... What about camera-based apps like Red Laser which read bar codes? Nope, can't use those. What about Voice Record? Hmmm, no microphone in the iPad, so... don't think so. Guess Shazam and SoundHound are also out of the picture. I wonder about those apps like UrbanSpoon that let you shake the device to perform searches. And of course, it's not a phone at all. So it's not that the iPad is "just" a bigger version of the iPhone—the point is, it isn't even that.

It's the beginning of the end for "open" general purpose personal computers.

OK, here's where the complaints veer off into the metaphilosophical. The argument is that the iPad is a "closed" device (much like the iPhone already has been for some time). While you have a choice of a huge number of downloadable applications, most (but not all) of which will work out of the box on the iPad, approval of which apps you can and can't run is in Apple's hands. So no Google Voice apps on the iPhone, no alternative browsers and email clients, no anything Apple doesn't want on your device.

And that upsets a lot of people who want control over their computing devices, who see Apple's offering of another closed platform device as "a Trojan horse that acculturates users to closed platforms as a viable alternative to open platforms", another step towards the "death of the traditional, open personal computer."

To which the response has been: So? Go buy a Droid then! If it bothers you that Apple wants the iP* devices to be a closed platform, then don't buy one, buy something else. There are alternatives, and there will continue to be alternatives as long as there is a market for them. The notion that so-called open general-purpose computers are what everyone wants and needs is just presumptive techie arrogance.

In response to a statement in this article that "it's a real possibility that in 10 years, general purpose computers will be seen as being strictly for developers and hobbyists," John Maxwell Hobbs of the BBC remarked that this may already be the case—"it's just that the computer industry has been forcing developer/hobbyist machines on consumers for years." Are general purpose computers more than most people need or want? Are they more trouble than the average person should have to deal with? Should us techies who want the open general purpose computers get to define what is or isn't a "real" computer, dictating how all systems ought to be configured?

(This is not that different from some car aficionados saying that the introduction of automatic transmissions in automobiles represented a "closed vehicle" system that marked the "death" of the stick shift. Imagine if those who drove a stick dictated to the rest of us that we shouldn't be able to drive cars with those "closed" automatic transmissions, that it wasn't a "real" car unless it had a stick. As far as I know, manual transmissions are still available in a significant number of automobile models.)

Open general purpose computers will still exist as they will be needed: by engineers, photographers, specialists, and yes, developers and "hobbyists". They're not going away because of the iPad. They just may no longer be the default for everyone. Live with it.

So What's "Wrong" with the iPad?

The issue I see missing from most discussions about what's wrong or right with the iPad is that it is ultimately not anything it claims to be. It's not revolutionary, it's not something new, it's not a "game-changer", it's not... really anything but a hodge-podged set of compromises.

Yes, yes, it's a beautiful elegant device. (I already said that!) But where does it fit in? And if it doesn't fit in anyplace in the current set of device categorizations, what new categorization has it carved out for itself? Why isn't it truly revolutionary the way we expect new Apple products to be? What convinced Steve Jobs, who was adamant five years ago that a tablet was good for nothing but surfing the web while sitting on the toilet, that an "in-between" device was the way to go?

My contention is that the iPad is a compromise device where the in-between situation isn't really good for all that much.

  • Your smartphone is small enough to fit in your pocket, is a viable telecommunications device, but it's too small to do serious work on (i.e., reading, writing, and watching)—and of course it's not a "real" computer.
  • A laptop is portable, if you're carrying a briefcase, though it's definitely too big to fit in your pocket... but it lets you do all the serious stuff, and it is after all a "real" computer.
  • A netbook is a little more portable (fits in a handbag/pocketbook), but again it's too big to fit in your pocket, though it comes close to being a "real" computer that lets you do most of the serious stuff pretty well.
  • So here's the iPad: still too big to fit in your pocket, still not quite big enough for serious stuff, and still not a "real" computer.
If the iPad has defined a new genre, that genre might best be described as "a device that doesn't fulfill my needs for either the pocket-size portability extreme or the full-size real computer extreme, but looks really cool, doesn't it?" (Honestly, Jobs expended a lot of energy telling us how each aspect of the device was wonderful or revolutionary. I can't recall an Apple announcement from him in recent memory where vocal superlatives were so needed to make the product seem cool.)

The point is that the Goldilocks Principle doesn't really apply here. "My smartphone is tooooooo small, my laptop and netbook are too00000 big, but my iPad is juuuuuuuuust right!" No. The solution is not always a compromise in the middle. Sometimes, it's something else entirely. (Sometimes, it's more than one thing.)

I don't need to have one more device in my life to deal with. I want the devices I have, or rather next-generation replacements of those devices, to fulfill my needs—to have something I can carry around with me all the time for telecommunications, and accessories that let me use that portable device, at my discretion, to do a wider variety of things.

When I read David Pogue's comment that the iPad's lack of telephone capabilities wasn't a big deal—"then again, you might look a little bizarre walking through the airport holding this giant clipboard up to your ear"—I wanted to scream! Geez, even the technocognoscentarati don't get it! Who would want to hold a device that large up to their ear to make a call? Remember Bluetooth headsets? Who's to say that a device like this couldn't BE a phone meant to be used exclusively with a remote headset, perhaps with more advanced features than your average Bluetooth device so you would never have to take it out of your briefcase/bag/whatever to use it as a phone? (It doesn't even necessarily have to be a Bluetooth device, a wired headset could provide similar functionality.) Perhaps interactive tasks like dialing could be accomplished on a separate remote device, a DickTracy-like Bluetooth-enabled "wrist radio". The iPad could indeed "be" a phone. If Apple wanted to do that...

Or perhaps the iPad could have been just a Bluetooth accessory for the iPhone. The iPhone stays in your pocket, you make phone calls with your headset and wristwatch dialer, and when you want to watch movies, or read a book, or do some serious typing or drawing, you then pull the iPad out of your bag and let it wirelessly use apps and data (media, e-books, documents) stored on your iPhone. One device to sync, one core device that you "have" to carry around (you might take the headset and wristwatch, but the larger iPad accessory could stay at home if you're not planning anything beyond basic telecommunications).

And who says the phone itself can't be made even smaller. Take away the interactive aspects of the phone—the touchscreen and buttons—and you can make a phone the size of a credit card. All interaction with such a device would be remote, either wired or wireless. You wouldn't take it out of your pocket/wallet at all (except maybe to charge it), because you wouldn't have to.

These are just some random ideas that have occurred to me about what the iPad could have been—in fact, some of them are what I was hoping the iPad would be. I expect Apple to think out of the box and come up with something original and even revolutionary. They didn't do that with the iPad. In fact, all they did was to say "Remember that Lenovo tablet that Steve Ballmer demonstrated? Well, we have a tablet too, and it's much better than Ballmer's. Isn't it wonderful?" And that's what's disappointing. Apple should never be playing the "we have one too" game. That's not what Apple does.

Apple needed to do two things to make the introduction of the iPad a success. First, Steve Jobs had to make the presentation. (Don't underestimate the importance of this.) Second, they had to show us an awesome revolutionary device that would change the whole playing field for portable computing devices. The first thing, they did, with a rousing well-deserved standing ovation. The second, well, only time will tell what the public reaction to the iPad really is beyond the initial "wow" factor.

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Your inexplicable anger over this product has clouded your judgement so thoroughly that you can no longer write objectively. To wit:

"What about camera-based apps..."

Apple did not say that a camera would be excluded. It may be that the software support is missing and could be added through an update...we won't know until it ships.

"What about Voice Record? Hmmm, no microphone in the iPad, so..."

The iPad supports Bluetooth, as well as headsets with an integrated mic. Nevertheless, it also has a built-in microphone, per the Apple specs page. Did you do any research before writing this screed, or did you just surf Gizmodo for a few minutes?

"I wonder about those apps like UrbanSpoon that let you shake the device..."

I wonder about your ability to form coherent arguments. If the videos and demos did not make it clear, the Specs page does: the iPad includes an accelerometer. You can stop wondering and instead report facts when you do a little research first. See how that works?

You are of course entitled to your opinion on the future of this device, but your apparent lack of factual information makes your opinions seem highly suspect.

LOL, Gus!! Thanks very much for your comment. How sad, though, that your inexplicable anger over my post seems to have clouded your ability to judge it objectively. Perhaps... if you'd read it? I don't know what motivated your tirade--perhaps overly devoted Apple-fanboyism, perhaps something else--but I cannot know for sure because I don't have access to YOUR specs. :-) My post, on the other hand, was not a tirade, and although you made it out to be an uninformed scathing disparagement of the iPad, nothing could be further from the truth, and you'd know that... if you'd read it.

You're right, I missed the mention in the specs about there being a microphone. Got me there. But to assert that "Apple did not say that a camera would be excluded ... software support [may be] missing and could be added through an update" - are you being serious? One could just as easily use the argument that "Apple didn't say that telephone capabilities would explicitly be excluded", or that "Apple didn't say the device doesn't have a time machine with food processor functionality." My point was, without all the built-in features of the iPhone, a significant number of that large number of available iPhone apps will not run on the iPad. I stand by that.

The purpose of my post was to get some clarity about what the iPad is, what it isn't, and what it could have been. In the process, I thought I affirmed several positive things (that the iPad is beautiful and elegant and that Apple hit a sweet spot with the price, that it could very well be a Kindle-killer) and dispelled some negative myths (that it's "just" a larger version of the iPhone, that the device was "bad" because it wasn't a full-fledged open general purpose computer). But historically it's never been enough for new Apple products to meet expectations: to be a true success, they've had to exceed and transcend expectations with out-of-the-box revolutionary thinking. I don't believe the iPad did achieve that, and I said why, and speculated on how it could have. Why you think that qualifies as an expression of "inexplicable anger" is... well, inexplicable.

So I messed up but not reading the specs carefully enough, and you messed up by, apparently, not reading my post at all, or at best being very selective in what you chose to glean from it. I guess that makes us even.

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