Life is a Mystery

27 January 2010

Pondering the iPad

Apple made it’s big announcement today. Personally, I think it is a home run, particularly the pricing. But my brother disagrees. I’ve used his criticism to spur my thinking on this newest venture from Apple. If you want to dig in, read on!

ipad.png

Sorry – this is a toy. With no optical drive, a bad aspect ratio (not truly 4:3 or 16:9), rushed design elements (like the silly home button and proprietary dock connector still in the iphone legacy orientation – they s/b along the side, so it can be used for video while docked) and most of all NO REAL OS of it’s own (so it inherits shortcomings of the iphone, like no flash support in safari). All in all, I think they whiffed this one about as badly as the Air. It has to be form AND function, not form over function, guys.

Well, Stephen, we’ll see if you are right.

I agree that the lack of multitasking is disappointing. But as an iPhone developer I have some idea where they are coming from. This is an amazing amount of processing to get out of something so small and with so little memory. This is not a Mac, not even a netbook. This thing can stay in standby mode for a month, it can go 10 hours on one charge of a tiny (by comparison to laptops) battery. It is 1.5 lbs. All these constraints are real factors and while the OS (more about that later) is fully capable of multitasking (and in fact is doing it all the time, just not letting third party developers in on the fun), Apple is trying to ensure a smooth user experience. If the price of graceful performance is multitasking, I am actually willing to give up multitasking.

Yes, that means no Pandora while I write (though note that iTunes will play while I write, Apple lets itself multitask). But developers are given all sorts of tools for suspending the state of their app so that moving between apps on an iPhone (and iPad) will feel pretty much like multitasking for most other purposes.

Silly home button and proprietary dock? I guess you are not an iPhone fan either. If you don’t like the iPhone and iPod Touch, then the iPad probably makes little sense. Stay away! But if you are already a adopter of the iPod ecosystem, then the iPad fits right in. Proprietary connector? Sure, but licensed to thousands of hardware manufacturers whose stuff will “just work” with the iPad. Need a car charger? A speaker system? An extra connector for your computer? The ones you have will work (well, the charger if it put out enough of a charge, similar to the transition from iPod to iPhone). This is a huge ecosystem unmatched by any other vendor. And any time the ecosystem starts to weaken Apple always has the option to license the connector to other device manufactures too. Proprietary, yes, but so were “RCA” audio jacks once upon a time.

And finally, no real OS? The iPhone has a real OS. Actually, OS development is arguably Apple’s strongest suit here. Alex and I write code for Macs and iPhones. The Mac OS and iPhone OS share the same foundation, and more importantly the same development tools and frameworks. The magic of what Apple has done, though, is to keep the developer side so familiar and seamless while allowing the user-facing side of the OS to change radically. The iPhone OS does not feel like the Mac OS, even though it really is the Mac OS. The iPad OS has clearly different flourishes that will distinguish it from the Mac and the iPhone. Apple is in a position to create an OS tuned to the device at hand without overwhelming the developer community. Developers will be able to write iPad apps today, a little new stuff to learn, but no need to throw away what you already know about Mac and iPhone programming. This is no toy, and developers who write iPhone and iPad apps will soon find themselves writing Mac apps as well (see Tweetie and many others). In fact, this is Apple’s trojan horse for Mac development. They are getting developers to buy into their world view, into Objective C, AppKit, CoreAnimation, and all the other underpinnings of the Mac OS.

Maybe by “no real OS” you mean that there is not a “desktop” with “files” to manipulate. That is true (though the filesystem is fully in place, it is a developer-level tool in the iPhone/iPad OS, not a user-level tool like in the Mac OS). But I would argue that for 80% of real people out there, this is a benefit of the iPad, not a drawback. You can’t lose your files. They get backed up automatically. The apps always know where to find them. They are always in the right format. Those of us who grew up with the suffering that computers typically entail don’t even notice the decisions we make every day about where to store files, what to name them, what formats to keep them in, when to back them up. We just do it. But our elders (hi Dagmar!) and kids (hi Nathaniel!) would rather not be bothered. And even most people of our own generation, truth be told. Apple is well on the way to abstracting this whole confusing layer of using a computer right out of existence. I celebrate that.

In the end, the things you diss about the iPad I think are exactly the things that will make it fly. It is simple (home button, no real OS) and will just work with everything (proprietary connector, no multitasking). Creativity is born of constraints. Apple understood the box it was working in, pushed itself to the limit to press on the boundaries of that box, but the creative genius of their work the past few years has been in not trying to be everything. They are being something, something focussed, something fun, and probably something very very successful.

Acolytes not-withstanding, this was rushed. They could AT LEAST have moved the dock connector and home button to a long edge, so it’s “native” orientation would be landscape. This was under-designed and an obvious ploy to try and lock people into their channels (App Store, Book Store, etc.)

Indications are that this product was first conceived over eight years ago and that Jobs killed the project at Apple at least four times since then. In fact, is may be that the iPhone itself is the derivative of this product, rather than the other way around. From an internal perspective, that would make a lot of sense. The developer SDK for the iPhone was always an insanely thorough affair, hardly what one would expect to support simply a phone. This product was anything but rushed. You may not like it any more than you may have liked an iMac without a floppy drive or a Mac without a two-button mouse, but this is exactly the product Apple (read Jobs) wanted to bring to market. Don’t imagine they were force to hurry it, not even for the print market.

I am also very disappointed by the lack of a camera. I would have liked at least a forward-facing “web cam” for Skyping. That’s the biggest lack in my book.

Note, though, that the iPad does have a microphone.

No treatise to the contrary, forgiving some things (like multitasking) and ignoring others (like no microphone, camera, or FLASH SUPPORT PLEASE), can “unring” the bell of truth.

I think Flash is a religious issue with Apple. You won’t see it. Flash has many drawbacks and Apple is doing what it can to kill it. Note the recent YouTube beta with HTML5, Apple is a big believer in HTML5. Flash and Silverlight are doomed on Apple mobile devices, we’ll see if they fade altogether or if Apple has to relent. Don’t hold your breath! (I know, I’ve been holding mine, hence no iPhone in my pocket.)

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Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org