After several months of being an iPad skeptic, I picked one up last Thursday, and have been putting it through its paces over the past week. So for those of you who have had to suffer through my dismissive and critical speculation about whether or not it really was all that and a bag of chips—here’s the real thing.
Apple does stunning industrial design. It’s hard not to fall for this thing when you first get it in your hands. It’s shiny and sleek and, as @stitchtowhere pointed out, you instantly feel like you’re in Star Trek holding it. What I like best about it is the big touch-sensitive screen, which really is a big step forward for personal computing. A mouse seems extremely clunky after this; the trackpad on my laptop less so but even it feels somewhat artificially indirect now. Touch screens are going to be the norm very soon, I think. Accordingly, the apps that really take advantage of this are the most interesting things about this device: musical instruments (esp. Mini Synth Pro, which is way too much fun), games, zooming images, etc.
Yes, it makes a decent e-reader. I’ve been reading things in all the major reader apps—I think Kobo’s is still the nicest (I say still, because I felt that way about it on my iPod, too) but the differences between the leading apps are really pretty subtle. The big screen offers a pretty decent reading experience; but while it’s superior to reading on the iPod’s tiny screen, it’s not radically different. It won’t make me stop reading on my iPod in the same way that I think I will never want to use a mouse again.
The ability to actually have illustrations in books is nice—the iPod failed at that—and kudos to whoever produced the Winnie-the-Pooh edition that comes with the iBooks app. We read some of that in bed with the kids the other night; it may as well be a PDF. Or the print edition. But then you stop to think: as the production quality gets more and more like reading paper the more you wonder, why am I not reading this on paper? I wondered that about Pooh: We have the printed book too (it’s even heavier than the iPad!) so remind me why I need a $500 device to read this on?
Speaking of PDFs, these are a big win on the bigger screen, and this may be one of my favourite things about the iPad: it is a really nice PDF viewer. Where PDFs are all but useless on the iPod, here they work quite nicely, in either portrait or landscape formats (which correspond, respectively, to full-page and page-width views, switchable with a flick of the wrist). This matters to me because I deal with a lot of PDFs in my work, so a boost in the user experience here is significant. In fact, I’ve been moved to actually read PDFs that have sat entirely ignored on my laptop: the excellent Dig into WordPress, for instance, which I’ve never really spent any time with, becomes an attractive, usable text on the iPad. The GoodReader app does a nice job of collecting and managing collections of PDFs—filling in quite nicely for the lack of a real filesystem (whose absence I have yet to fully fathom).
If only ePubs were so easy to manage! Where GoodReader provides a decent file library, the sorry state of the ebook world means that I have no fewer than five ebook apps—Stanza, Kobo, iBooks, Kindle, and Ibis Reader—installed on this device, each one with its own lonely collection of titles acquired via the its own xenophobic distribution channel (with all due respect to Ibis). In total, there are probably twenty-five books currently on my iPad, but they cannot be collected together in a library of my own. Rather, they are marooned on distinct app-islands, the result of the silly, silly state of the ebook industry in 2010, an industry which has succeeded in standardizing on a single format (all but Kindle use the ePub format), while remaining balkanized in discrete retail/software environments. It’s really quite pathetic.
But, you know what? It’s too big. This isn’t something I really noticed while using it, though the heft of the iPad is certainly part of the experience of it. No, this problem came to the fore the other morning, when I left to come in to my office. I thought, should I take it with me? And I decided not to. It would mean packing it in my backpack, next to my laptop, and I just didn’t think it would be worth it.
That’s a significant criticism. When the thing is useful enough to replace my laptop, it will come with me to work; but if I’m packing the laptop anyway, it’s not worth carrying. On the other side, it’s not a replacement for my iPod—it doesn’t fit in any pocket I own (and I’m not about to go murse)—so it’s redundant there, too. Having the nice big touch-screen isn‘t enough of a win to offset the extra trouble of packing it. And it became clear to me that the Number One reason I’ve read as much as I have on my iPod is simply portability. So does convenience trump the advantages of the bigger screen? Maybe it does. My laptop has a nicer screen than any of them, but I’m not tempted to read books on it.
If I were on my way to a conference or some other event, I could see taking it instead of my laptop; it’s smaller, lighter, and ‘cooler’, but I don’t see this working out on a day-to-day basis. So it sits at home, like a toy, instead.
The too-big aspect is probably the easiest thing to fix. When I first got my iPod Touch, I thought, this would be really cool if it were twice as large. But the iPad is about 4x the size of the iPod, so there’s a sweet spot in the middle there somewhere: about the size of a pulp paperback, maybe, where the touch screen is big enough to be interesting, big enough to handle PDFs, but small enough to fit in a jacket pocket or at least feel like it’s portable. The iPad does not quite feel portable. It’s too heavy, and there’s a good ¾ of an inch of device around the perimeter of the screen that can probably get shaved off in a future version.
The functionality side—the ability for this device to ever replace my laptop—is farther off, at least for Apple. They’ve decided to go with a model with the App Store which makes you into a consumer when you use this thing. That’s pretty different than the personal computing model in which you are a producer (of Word .docs, if nothing else). I have hopes for the Android platform being much more fecund on this level, because it will be populated with people “scratching their own itch” as a motivation, rather than trying to make little thingies that people are willing to shell out $2.99 for.
The far-reaching implications of the app store are really not well thought out. Has nobody at Apple read Yochai Benkler’s arguments in Coase’s Penguin? The drag imposed on the operational economics of software development by forcing it—slowly—through that single passage point results in an ecosystem where nothing of any scale can really flourish. The app store’s approval process, which rules that the only way to deploy software is through the store itself, seriously undermines the “release early, release often” ethic that has been key to the success of the open source movement. How can a project effectively gather a community of developers—the key organizational innovation in software development in recent decades—without a straightforward deployment model? The free software movement flourished because the Internet made it cheap and easy to deploy code—yet Apple’s model flies entirely in the face of this. So anyone with a professional stake in app development has serious economic pressure to make things that will sell quickly at $2.99 before the next hot thing comes along. How can this lead to anything but a trivialization of software for the iPhone and iPad—a world of toys and incidental utilities?
So you now know that my mixed feelings about the iPad are partly ideological. This week it became concrete, in my simple annoyance at being nickel-and-dimed every time I want to try something new. The app store bugs me—and this is closely related to how the ePub universe bugs me. Here is an opportunity to do something wonderful and new and open-ended, on a grand scale (think “World-Wide Web”). But instead, the people in charge are making short-sighted, narrow-minded decisions about how to gain (or keep) marketshare in the next quarter or two. It’s annoying in the short term, but I think probably simply doomed in the longer run.
The rest of the world will move beyond this model. Someone else will give us a nice touch-screen interface to open computing (maybe even Apple), and the iPad will be history. In the meantime, it’s interesting, but ultimately not compelling.
Oh, by the way, could we have a pen, please? A stylus would make the iPad about 300% more useful immediately. I want to scribble on PDFs. It doesn’t work terribly well with a fingertip.