Yesterday was one of the most media-hyped tech days in recent memory. Apple, makers of the ubiquitous iPod and popular iPhone, promised to unveil its newest creation yet.
For years, analysts had predicted that the company was working on a tablet computer, and it finally seemed that they would realize this dream. In the weeks and days prior to this event, the media hit a frenzy as rumor after rumor leaked out about the nature of the tablet computer. Every day, websites like Digg were inundated with submissions containing fan renderings of the product, musings on the functionality of the device, and rampant speculation of cost.
The endless hype turned out to be a double-edged sword for Apple however; it raised expectations too high. When the curtains were pulled off the new iPad yesterday at Apple’s keynote, it was immediately (and largely) criticized by many.
And in my opinion, rightfully so. The device isn’t ambitious enough, the cost is too high, and in the end, it just doesn’t fit in well with all the other gadgets people already enjoy using. Here’s everything that I think is wrong with the iPad, and why it is already destined for failure.
Let’s tackle the obvious first: “iPad” is a stupid name. Steve Jobs likened it to a nickname for your home (aka, your “pad”), but internet spectators were quick to point out that it sounded more like a women’s hygiene product. Many wondered if Apple even had any women working in their product development division, and it took no time at all for funny images to pop up all over the internet.
It probably didn’t help that MadTV did a skit some years ago featuring an “iPad” in a parody of the iPod. And the fact that CNN picked up the story for an article this morning is a pretty good sign that the “iPad” name was truly a poor choice.
On-screen keyboard and form factor
Naming issues aside, there are usability concerns with the iPad, many of which center around the ergonomics of using a device its size (9.5 x 7.5 x .5 in. @ 1.5 lb.) for performing tasks you might normally do on a computer. For browsing the internet, the idea works great – you can hold it upright in your hand, angle it as you sit at a table, or cradle it in your lap as you sit in a chair.
But what about using it to type a document or even when you simply need to punch in a URL? Suddenly the iPad’s form becomes a huge issue. Holding it in one hand while pecking out words with the other seems needlessly difficult. Alternatively, I have serious doubts about how comfortable it will be to lay the device flat no table and hunch over it to use both hands for typing.
And that’s not to mention the caveats of trying to type on a touch-screen, a universally annoying experience.
You could use a Bluetooth keyboard, or dock the iPad on a special Apple-created dock that lets you plug in a keyboard, but these are impractical solutions for a product designed for mobility.
Gizmodo’s Adam Frucci had this to say about the on-screen keyboard:
“So much for Apple revolutionizing tablet inputs; this is the same big, ugly touchscreen keyboard we’ve seen on other tablets, and unless you’re lying on the couch with your knees propping it up, it’ll be awkward to use.”
Apple, in releasing their iLife software for iPad, seems to think that people should use the tablet to get real work done – but why would anyone bother when it is so much easier to do these things on your existing computer or laptop?
The bezel frame
As long as I’m complaining about the form, I’d also like to say that the bezel frame around the screen of the iPad is too large. I understand that it was built this way so that you can hold the device without accidentally touching any controls, but it makes it look like you’re holding a digital picture frame, and it’s ugly. This could have been better thought out and better executed.
In the middle of that huge, ugly frame is the iPad’s screen, which sports a resolution that might give you some feelings of nostalgia (1024 x 768). I find it a bit strange that when the rest of the industry is moving toward widescreen displays, and has been for years, Apple would introduce a new device – a media-centric machine, no less – which brings us back, full circle, to the old 4:3 ratio.
They showed the iPad playing a widescreen version of Star Trek during the keynote, and literally half of the viewing area was black. Half the screen. It was almost as if Steve Jobs was daring the throng of fanboys not to buy one.
E-books, magazines, and fried eyeballs
One of the phrases a lot of people were throwing around before the iPad was unveiled was “Kindle killer”. Referring to Amazon’s e-book reader, the Kindle, many saw this as Apple’s chance to grab hold of the digital book market much like they did with digital music so many years ago. Some reporters even claimed that Apple would save the failing newspaper industry.
The practicalities of subscription-based news content is another argument for another day. But if newspapers and magazines are hanging all their hopes on the success of the iPad as an e-book reader, I’m afraid the industry is doomed.
One of the main draws to the Kindle has been the implementation of a display that mimics actual print. Specifically, the Kindle uses E Ink, a proprietary type of electronic paper that makes using the device more akin to reading an actual book, and consumes very little power to maintain a constant screen image.
For any device that proposes to be used as a replacement for your books or magazines, ease on the eyes is an absolute must, and I do not believe this is possible with the iPad’s backlit LCD screen.
I also hate that Apple has dubbed e-books on iTunes as “iBooks”.
The other downside to using an LCD screen is the power usage. The iPad has a 10 hour battery life for media viewing, which might be acceptable for watching a movie or two on a long plane ride, but for anyone serious about reading books or magazines, it’s pathetic. The Kindle can operate continuously for a week on one charge, and of course, your normal books and magazines don’t need a charge at all.
The iPad has about as much charge as a laptop with a large battery, and nobody likes using those for reading extensively. The fact that the iPad will constantly need to be tethered to your PC (or the wall) for charging seriously detracts from the whole point of making it such a mobile device in the first place.
A new gaming device?
As Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo noted, the iPad doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the gaming market either, unless you consider resolution-doubled iPhone games innovative. It’s too expensive to compete with DS or PSP as well. Totilo also asked the following of Apple:
“If your consumers still need a computer and a phone, needs which you already can fill, what room in their wallet, their bag and their life is there for a semi-portable, semi-desk-ready tablet computer? For gaming or otherwise?”
No expansion options
One of the biggest shockers of the iPad announcement was that the device, which tries in so many ways to be a netback / laptop replacement, has no expansion slots for storage media or input devices.
Not only are you stuck using the on-screen keyboard for typing, but without a slot for memory cards or discs, there’s also no convenient way to swap documents from the iPad to another device. I’m assuming iTunes will be able to handle some of this functionality, as well as MobileMe (for the more expensive 3G models), but that’s just not good enough.
If Apple wants the iPad to compete with other small-scale computers, it needs to let go of the closed environment, and give users more freedom with their media.
Which brings me to yet another complaint – the App Store. Again, Apple is trying to convince consumers that their new machine is better than using a netbook or a traditional laptop, but also again, the limitations the company places on the device render it gimpy and under-utilized.
With a netback or laptop, one can run any piece of software created for the OS they run, limited only by the capabilities of the hardware in their machine. They can purchase software, download free software, and create their own. It is entirely up to them, and it should be.
The App Store takes away that control, placing Apple between developers and consumers. The result is a negligibly improved user experience at the expense of freedom to do what one wants with his hardware. It’s not pretty, and it makes closed platforms like Windows look like a bastion of liberty.
Lifehacker’s Adam Pash had this to say on this subject:
“With the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, you’re trading choice and control in exchange for unsubstantiated promises.”
Following Apple’s recent obsession with content control, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if OS 11 won’t allow software to run without it being reviewed, approved, and purchased from the App Store.
Another big shocker from the iPad keynote was that the device, much like its iPod / iPhone brethren, would not support multitasking. In my opinion, this is really the biggest design mistake for the whole product.
Though other mobile platforms support running multiple applications at once, it still kind of makes sense for the iPod and iPhone to exclude this. There’s no easy way to switch between apps while you’re running them, and battery life is important for phone / media playback.
When you take this idea to a more powerful machine with a larger screen however, it just doesn’t make sense. The proprietary 1Ghz CPU inside the iPad should be plenty capable of running more than one app at once. The screen also has a lot more real estate available, so showing / switching between multiple apps should not be an issue. And finally, what is the use of a computer that doesn’t let you chat while you browse the internet? Even the wimpiest netbook can accomplish this (and much more, of course).
The inability to run more than one program at once is a major detractor for anyone who might consider shelving their laptop or netbook in favor of the iPad, and a hard time seeing it making any serious inroads against these devices without this basic functionality.
It also doesn’t run Flash. I’m no lover of Flash and all the horrible things it has unleashed on the internet, but not including it on a device that is touted as “the best browsing experience you’ve ever had” seems suspect to me.
I know pricing is always an issue with Apple products, but I think it’s still worth mentioning here, especially when comparing the iPad with existing mobile computing solutions.
While I was watching the live blog unfold (via Gizmodo, unfortunately), I was surprised when the price, $499, splashed up on the screen. I scrolled up a bit to see what else I had missed since the last update, and I found the model / price grid, which quickly explained the lower-than-expected price point.
That’s $500 for an iPad with 16gb memory and no 3G capabilities. The lack of a sufficient amount of memory and built-in wireless hardware makes the low-end iPad more of a price point decoy than anything else. For a more reasonable spec sheet (64gb memory, 3G), the iPad will set you back $830. Not surprising, and not affordable. And not exactly a huge amount of storage space either.
Some of the editors at Ars Technica, like Eric Bangeman, believe that the $500 iPad is still within reach for teenagers addicted to iPods and iPhones, but after Sony almost sunk the PlayStation brand with its $500 PS3, I have my doubts about that.
AT&T and data plans
Finally, I want to say a quick word about AT&T, and the proposed data plans for the 3G models.
The fact that, after all this time, Apple is still partnering exclusively with AT&T is mind-bogglingly stupid. If New York is already at the peak for data usage bandwidth, what will happen with another load of similar devices?
The low-end data plan for the iPad ($15 / month for 250mb) is laughable. After watching a handful of YouTube videos, downloading a few apps, and checking your email, you’d be over the limit and probably racking up huge overage fees.
The “unlimited” plan is twice the price ($30 / month) and is pretty much what you already pay for your cell phone if you have a data plan. I’ve no idea if you can use the iPad with your existing mobile data plan, but if you can’t, the device is in more trouble than I thought it is.
Though many in the press and print industry still remain excited about the iPad, most of the comments I read from users on Digg, Twitter, and CNN have been negative. The few positive things I’ve read have been in defense of the device as repeating the pattern of the iPhone; laughed at, but then a runaway success.
I don’t buy into this tired argument. I think things could easily go quite differently for the iPad, simply because it really isn’t the “magical” device Steve Jobs claims it to be. Almost everything that might have wowed people was introduced with the iPhone years ago, and the rest just isn’t that great. Where the iPhone brought a lot of new and innovative things to the smart phone market, the iPad brings nothing new, and to a market somewhere in between phone and laptop, a gap that doesn’t need to be filled.
I think Ars Technica’s science editor, John Timmer, put it best when he concluded his brief review of the iPad with this:
“Apple looks like it nailed its target of creating a truly distinct device that’s somewhere in between the phone and the laptop. And, for precisely that reason, it doesn’t seem like it would be all that useful to me.”
There are many who believe that this product will be a success merely because of the insane popularity of the iPod and iPhone. One Gizmodo member wagers they’ll have sold 10 million units by the end of next year.
I don’t deny the possibility of success, but for now, I doubt it strongly. The iPad is nothing more than an expensive and underwhelming tablet computer that most people will have no practical use for due to its limitations.
And it still sounds like a feminine hygiene product.