Apple’s iPad: What it represents

(A blog post from Ramon, our resident iPhone developer, also known among the nerd herd as “filjedi.”)

iPad on an invisible table

iPad on an invisible table in Steve Job's home ;p

So, the iPad is the rumored tablet that Apple finally unveiled to the public last 27 January. Some people were amazed, more were disappointed, others even told themselves, “Why the hell would I buy this?” Me? I would buy the 16GB version today for 2 reasons.

Firstly, as an iPhone developer, I’d definitely need to test my current app on an actual iPad. I’d want to use it to see how I can take advantage of the added screen real estate & the better specs if I were to release DeskWhiz & WalletWhiz as “native” iPad apps.

Secondly, I definitely see this as something I can use when I don’t want to fire up my Macbook in the SOHO just to check my e-mail, browse the web, play games, watch videos, or other casual activities. The iPhone is great for these things, but the iPad can arguably do them better. In short, this is the netbook I’ve been waiting for.

However, there has been a lot of negative feedback regarding the iPad. It doesn’t allow third party app multi-tasking. It doesn’t run Flash. It doesn’t have a real keyboard. It doesn’t have a camera. It still needs a separate computer to function properly. It doesn’t have an optical drive. It doesn’t have a real desktop/laptop/netbook OS.

Instead of offering my two-cents about what the iPad can or can’t do, I’d rather go into a discussion into what the iPad means for the future of personal computing & why Apple may have actually left out a lot of things on purpose in it’s goal to redefine a netbook.

HARDWARE

Let’s start with the iPad’s hardware. The iPad uses a custom 1 Ghz ARM-based Apple A4 CPU/GPU that is not yet used in any other device. As for now, no one outside Apple knows how much RAM is installed in the device. The only things we know are that the iPad comes with a 9.7″ 1024×768 display & 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of storage, & that there are 2 models: Wifi only & a Wifi/3G version. In comparison, most netbooks use a 1.6 Ghz Intel Atom CPU, 1 – 2 GB of RAM, 8 to 10-inch 1024×600 displays, and 4 -160 GB of storage. A real mid-size laptop like Apple’s own Macbook uses a 2.26 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, at least 2 GB of RAM, 13-inch 1280×800 display, and at least 250GB of storage.

So, now that we know the specs, what can we conclude from this? On paper, an iPad has more in common with netbooks than laptops. Even without going into other specifics, it’s clear that Apple did not release a tablet that was meant to replace a laptop. Even Steve Jobs said that the iPad is a device that is something between an iPhone & a laptop, and he mentioned that netbooks were the current equivalent of that device.

According to Steve Jobs, netbooks are underpowered, have poor displays & aren’t really good at anything. Even though the iPad’s specs aren’t exactly state-of-the-art, most of those who have played with the device say that it’s very responsive. How is that possible? It’s the software that makes this possible.

SOFTWARE (Multitasking)

Here is where it gets tricky. Most netbooks use a desktop OS like Windows XP, Windows 7 or a flavor of Linux. The iPad uses iPhone OS 3.2, a tweaked version of the iPhone OS (that is, in turn, a mobile version of desktop Mac OS X) that powers our iPhones & iPod touch devices. A lot of those who were waiting for an Apple tablet wanted a device that ran the desktop Mac OS X. Think about it: with the meager specs of netbooks & the iPad, is a desktop OS actually the better choice?

Let’s compare Mac OS X & iPhone OS in some areas. Like Windows, Mac OS X allows multitasking, or having many applications running at the same time; iPhone OS currently does not, although Apple’s own apps (like Phone, Mail & Messages) do run in the background as processes. Related to this, in Mac OS X, you can have several windows open at the same time; in iPhone OS, the current app is the only app you can see & interact with.

When I’m using Mac OS X, I expect to be able to see & interact with many things at the same time. I’ll have Mail.app open to the left (partially visible), Safari in the middle, and Tweetie to the right. When I work, Xcode replaces Safari. So, at any time, I can see if I have e-mail and/or important tweets & pause my web browsing or coding to respond to the e-mail or tweet. Of course, this is only practical if you have a large screen; try doing this in a netbook & you’d go blind or insane.

My usage pattern for iPhone OS is different. If I’m using mobile Safari, I want to see & interact only with mobile Safari, because I’m aware of the limited screen size of an iPhone. Often, it’s actually more relaxing & productive to just focus on one task at one time, and worry about less important matters later. Of course, on Mac OS X, I can do that by maximizing Safari or Xcode to fill the whole screen. However, in iPhone OS, by limiting you to one app at one time, you’re forced to focus on just one task until completion. In the event of an interruption, like a phone call or important e-mail or SMS, you can go back to what you were doing (if an app developer applies proper persistence guidelines, of course).

You can argue that, if other mobile operating systems like Symbian, Blackberry, Android, Windows Mobile & WebOS implement multitasking, then why can’t Apple do that in iPhone OS? I’d argue that Apple chooses not to, as for now. They are well aware of the current hardware limitations of mobile devices & netbooks in terms of CPU, RAM & battery. Try running & switching through several apps in your mobile device or netbook, and you will notice that performance & battery life are definitely affected.

Here are a few points to keep in mind. One of the most popular apps for Android is a task killer meant to terminate all apps running in the background. Palm’s WebOS users are having problems with poor battery life. According to Intel & Microsoft, netbooks should only run 3-5 applications at the same time; to quote Microsoft on netbooks, “the small size can make tasks like creating presentations, typing documents, or editing photos and video difficult. Typing over a long period of time can also be a little challenging. Finally, the screen size isn’t optimized for the Web, so plan on doing plenty of panning and scrolling.” I’m willing to bet if the iPad ran Mac OS X, people would have similar complaints.

SOFTWARE (File System Interaction)

Another area where Mac OS X & iPhone OS greatly differ is the way they handle files & applications. Mac OS X has Finder, the Mac equivalent of Windows Explorer. You use Finder to open, delete, copy & move files & folders; before the advent of the GUI (& even today, for certain tasks), you use the Terminal (Command Prompt in Windows) to do these things. In iPhone OS, there is a file system, but there is no Apple-approved way to do these file management tasks. If you’ve used an iPhone or iPod touch before, you’ll notice that, even though your app does “save your work”, the process is completely opaque. You don’t know where the files used by the app are saved, nor are you prompted to look for the files you need to open, unlike on a desktop OS. As a user, you have no access to the hierarchy of the file system; you merely interact with it through the application you’re using. There’s no danger of deleting important system files, and virus & malware have minimal traction in this set-up.

Even the way users use applications is different on Mac OS X & iPhone OS. On the Mac, if you want to use an application not built into the system, you download it & install it from the web, or install it from physical media. In iPhone OS, the only way to install apps is through the App Store; you browse or search for the app you want, wait for it to download, and use it after it finishes installing. Want to know my theory why Internet Explorer is still the most popular browser (almost 60% market share)? Most people don’t want to go through the process of looking for a new browser to download, install & reconfigure.

Could this also explain why a lot of gamers prefer console games to PC games? On the console, you just plug in the disc & play. A very simple process. The App Store refines it even further; you don’t even have to leave your couch to download & use the app or game you want. It’s dead simple, as long as you have a credit card & iTunes account. That’s the catch, of course.

APPLE CONTROLS YOU

Apple minimizes the pain of installing new games & apps by hiding the file system, controlling approval & distribution of apps, ensuring that viruses & malware do not infect your system through malicious apps, and forcing users to create an iTunes account. It’s Apple’s way or the highway.

In my humble opinion, this doesn’t matter to the general public. According to Wikipedia, as of January 2009, Apple is already the world’s largest legal music retailer, and accounts for 70% of worldwide online digital music sales. Also on Wikipedia: as of January 15, 2010, there are at least 130,000 third-party applications officially available on the App Store, with over 3 billion total downloads. Now that’s a lot of satisfied customers.

Remember, both the iTunes Store & App Store are easily accessible on the iPad. At the same time, whatever software & media that users have previously downloaded through these outlets are compatible with the iPad.

THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING

Even though I ‘m going to buy the iPad today, that does not mean that I’m completely happy with it. The main hindrance to the iPad’s success is that it still requires a separate computer to fully maximize. Of course, Apple could easily build a device that will connect to the iPad (either through a wired or wireless connection) to back-up & sync files & settings. In Apple’s current line-up, there are 2 potential candidates for this function: the Airport Extreme Base Station and the Apple TV. So, I’m sure that’s it’s just a matter of time before Apple addresses my main concern.

The second thing that Apple has to overcome is the current paradigm of a “personal computer”. Most people expect that they can use their PC to surf the web, check their e-mail, play games, edit & share photos & videos. If you think about it, the iPad can already do most of these things. But I’d like to propose that the iPad is not really a personal computer, since “computing” (includes programming, editing of photos & videos, and the like) is not it’s main function; it’s a “consuming” device. If you need to compute, use a Mac instead.

If & when Apple can convince most people that, as a “personal consumer”, the iPad outdoes the netbook, ebook readers, smartphones & similar devices available on the market today, then the iPad can be considered a philosophical success. At the same time, just like the iPhone, if Apple continues to release improved versions of the iPad without compromising it’s spirit & character, then it will also become a financial success. Oh, and let’s not forget the thousands of developers who will continue to make iPhone apps & start to make iPad apps that will help make all our lives easier.

I really can’t wait till March to get my hands on one. You had me at hello, iPad.

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