iThink… iMight… iWill.

Two DisCONNECTs in one day? You’d better check your router. This time it’s an opinion about what the iPad actually is, and what it isn’t (and was never supposed to be). Hopefully I can shed a bit of light on some of the silly statements rolling around at the moment. Disclaimer: I’m not an Apple fanboy.

The iPad. Before we get started, feel free to quickly run through all the female sanitary pad jokes you can think of. All done? Good. Yeah, Apple once again have come out with a new… thing… which people are either going apeshit for or which people seem to hate on principal. To set the record straight, I’m a Microsoft citizen, though I have a lot of Apple stuff. I’ve owned iPods, I’ve got a Macbook (which runs Windows 7, I couldn’t take OS X) and I really like my iPhone. It’s not exactly the best phone I’ve ever had, but it’s the best smartphone I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a long history of PDAs from Windows Mobile and Palm). So I guess I play both ways but I have a major preference for Microsoft. On top of my high end PC I’ve also got a PS3, and I also have a Kindle so my arsenal of tech is massive. So what the hell can an iPad do for me?

Firstly, people seem to be confused as to what an iPad is, or what it was going to end up as. And to be perfectly honest, it’s probably Apple’s fault for trying to put this thing in the same category as a Tablet PC or a Netbook. Like a tablet PC, you can hold it in one hand. Like a netbook, it has enough processing power to browse the internet and do simple tasks. Unlike a tablet PC, it isn’t a fully functional PC with a workstation OS. Unlike a netbook, it has enough grunt to run higher def media. Like an iPhone, it’s good at playing media. Unlike an iPhone, it doesn’t make calls and it doesn’t have a camera. So what the hell DOES it do?

The iPad is not a tablet PC, it’s not a netbook, and it’s not a phone. It was never, ever going to be any of those things. For a start it needs a PC to be activated and to receive updates. The iPad is a media consumption device, and I really hate using that term because it’s nebulous and makes me sound like a salesman. But really I can’t come up with something better. It’s closer to an iPod than a Kindle, but closer to a netbook than an iPod. It sits in some sort of middle ground. Some of you might say “Soldant, you unknowable enigma, that sounds like a pretty pointless device!” And I’d say that you might be right… however Apple happens to do one thing (and only one thing) right: they create a perfect union between small form factor devices and the software that drives them. OS X isn’t great and does a lot of stupid things, and I wouldn’t buy one of their desktops, but the iPhone OS and the iPhone work EXTREMELY WELL together. The system is intuitive and easy to use, and evidently has enough power for developers to stretch their legs. That’s ultimately why both are so successful (and the iPad will sell like hotcakes on worldwide release, no doubt). That’s pretty much all that Apple do well, and I suspect that Apple knows this and will slowly move towards this mobile consumer market.

Before the iPhone or iPad, mobile devices were small form factor PCs (the tablet PCs) which were either overheating nightmares or underperforming weights with poor tablet recognition. If it wasn’t a tablet PC, it was something running Windows Mobile or whatever the hell Palm uses these days. Neither were particularly user friendly, especially the later versions of Windows Mobile which had all the joys of your desktop Windows versions, including random crashes. The iPhone came in with a slick interface that made things a snap for the average user, and suddenly smartphones stopped being things that business executives carried around, and started being something the average person could access. Now along comes the iPad, essentially a giant touch screen which plays media and does a decent job of surfing non-Flash websites.

If you’re complaining that the iPad doesn’t come with a USB port for connecting to external media, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. The iPad wasn’t designed for this; Apple wanted a device that fit between a laptop and the iPhone. Everyone assumed this meant “netbook” and Apple helped that idea along too, but everybody should have known when we saw it that it wasn’t anything of the sort. This thing isn’t designed for typing up your essay. If you want to do that, you’re better off with a laptop (face it, netbooks are too small to comfortably type for extended periods of time). I hate saying this, because it sounds stupid, but the iPad isn’t a “media creation device”. It’s purely about watching, listening, reading and playing, even though you can do a bit of editing on it if you wish. It’s like a big information display… sort of.

Apple couldn’t create a big touchscreen that was a netbook. It’d be a disaster; it’d be an underperforming piece of shit which would do nothing particularly well and lots of things at a substandard level. Apple instead did the smart thing and focused it on viewing media or documents, and to that point the iPad does a damn good job (a full review is coming soon). What Apple did a really piss poor job about is drilling that into the minds of the public, who were expecting a netbook compressed into a giant screen. If you own a netbook, arguably there’s no reason to get an iPad. If you don’t, and you’re looking for a big touch screen that does everything your iPhone does plus a bit extra, then there might be a spot for it in your life. If you’re expecting to type up your thesis on why kids sniff paint, then you’re wasting your time.

There are a few major omissions with the iPad which shit me. Firstly is the lack of Flash support. I suspect Apple is still just bitter that nobody likes Quicktime, but nevermind. It’s highly unlikely to ever appear, but because every bastard puts Flash content on their websites, it tends to break a lot of things (and also tends to avoid a lot of ads, so there is a slight upside I guess). Next is the lack of multitasking, but I know that iPhone OS 4.0 is supposed to address this. That said, the lack of multitasking isn’t surprising because it runs a version of the iPhone OS which doesn’t have multitasking to start with, and it’s not a full blown computer so it’s not exactly something I’d expect from this device. Also, and I know I’m probably being a total dick by stating this, but IMO Apple missed a perfect opportunity to include a video out port on this thing. Yeah, I’m being picky and probably asking for something which would have been difficult to implement, but it would have been nice.

In terms of how I’d use this device in my busy tech arena, I’m not 100% sure apart from “really big iPod”. I don’t think I could read books on it for an extended period of time; I love the eInk screen on my Kindle and I don’t think I could read for extended periods on the ultrabright screen of the iPad. When I worked in Ambulance communications, I stared at 4 LCD screens for 12 hours a day. That’s enough for me to be sick of them. That said now I stare at patients and wonder if they’re still breathing, which isn’t much of an improvement. Also the Kindle is way lighter and easier to handle than the iPad. Where I think the iPad would excel for me is in reading all the digital textbooks I have. I have a lot of anatomy and physiology or pharmacology notes and books which simply don’t display well on the Kindle; all the text is there, but a lot of it can only be explained by pictures, so without readable pictures the entire thing becomes incredibly difficult. This is where the iPad would excel for me. Finally, the iPhone has some really cool games, so I’m interested to see what will arrive for the iPad. The iPhone is arguably the phone of choice for gaming, though it’s unlikely to replace the Nintendo DS. Also for simple web browsing, it does a pretty good job. And Youtube support is pretty good. All my mail is webmail based so anything with a browser will do well with that.

But if I wanted to do some serious work, I’d be better served by booting up my laptop or my desktop. If I wanted to read a book that was all text, I’d rather use my Kindle but that’s strictly personal preference. The iPad can’t replace my laptop or my iPhone, and for me personally it can’t replace my Kindle (which I can actually comfortably hold for extended periods in one hand), but it does find a place as an internet and media appliance (another shitty marketing term, so shoot me).

All of the people claiming that this is going to be a failure are blind; the iPad will be big because the apps will carry it into new territory. The same thing was said about the iPhone and look at it now. The people claiming that Apple’s omissions are sensible tend to be a bit blinded. Actually you know what, that’s what shits me about the Apple community. Something will be clearly stupid (like the Finder’s tendency to sort EVERYTHING by name, instead of having folders first with no option to change this) and they’ll claim that it’s a “better” way of doing thigs and anybody who does things differently is stupid and wrong. Anyway the iPad is not a revolution and it’s not likely to create a new market. It will sit in its niche and it will probably be the only product in its class. Not everyone will have one, unlike the iPhone, but many people will still buy one even if it is of dubious utility.

Anyway up soon will be the full review, as soon as mine arrives. Stay tuned.

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