I watched the launch of the iPad (or iSlatelet, as I’d taken to calling it in the hope that someone would have explained to Steve why iPad was an even less sensible name for a consumer electronics product than Wii) with considerable scepticism, but on reflection, so many aspects of this thing are near enough right.
Who’ll buy it, people ask? I think this will become obvious when it materialises on shelves. Sitting in its optional keyboard dock, it’s a really, really cool desktop computer. You’ll have to look at, and then you’ll have to pick it up - and then (say people who have) you’ll want it. Just because it’s like nothing else. In fact, from a desirability point of view, it’s almost irrelevant that iPad is nominally a computer. It could be a hi-fi or a TV or a set of kitchen scales, you’d still want it. All you need is an excuse to buy it.
And there are plenty of excuses. You can surf the web with it, do your email, word process, all the things normal people ask if you can do with a computer. And then hundreds of thousands of apps are available to do other stuff – not for £29.95 or £99.95 but a couple of quid, or less. Without even having to shop for them.
Normal people can use it
Yes, ultimately you might wonder about what it can’t do that (other) computers can. But what really makes it unlike any other computer is that it’s not a nightmare. You’ll never install a dodgy program and wish you hadn’t, because all software is pre-vetted. The Windows registry won’t need cleaning. You won’t start having weird problems and have to figure out which apps and which settings are causing them. Your kids won’t drag vital system files to the trash. You won’t have three OS updates to install every day. You’re very unlikely ever to get a virus or have to call tech support. It just works! That’s ‘the computer for the rest of us’, isn’t it?
More than that: it’s the computer for people who didn’t even think they were the rest of us. Let’s say you wish you could keep in touch better with your granny. You’d suggest she buy a computer if that would help, but that would be insane, because she wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it and you couldn’t even begin to explain file management or the Control Panel. Well, when she sees the iPad in John Lewis, she’ll be only too happy to buy it. Once you set her up a WiFi router, her iPad will connect automatically whenever it’s in the house. She’ll soon get the hang of the web and email because all she has to do is point to stuff, and there’s no extraneous crap to distract her or make her worry she’s going to break it.
Nobody said it had to do everything
At the other end of the user scale, of course, you won’t be able to run Photoshop or Mathematica. Well, get used to it. The personal computer as a sort of Turing Machine of life, a blank slate (ho ho) ready for any task in any field? Didn’t work out. We’re going to have different computers for different things. Today’s hottest variety is the netbook: pretty useless for video editing or playing Call of Duty, but cheap and handy. Yes, the iPad costs about 50 to 100% more than a netbook – but it’s much more than twice as interesting. As Steve pointed out, ‘netbooks aren’t better at anything’. They’re all compromise.
Whatever its shortcomings, I don’t think buying an iPad will feel like a compromise. Even though I’m skint and there are things I need much more urgently and I’m one of the people who needs to do stuff every day that it won’t do, just thinking about buying one gives me that same feeling I used to have when I saved up enough pocket money to go and get a new add-on for my Commodore 64. Not just the feeling of choosing the right piece of kit to fulfil a requirement, but the feeling of leaping into the unknown, acquiring something not yet understood that’ll mean things to me I haven’t imagined yet.
All right, it’s not perfect
There are shortcomings, yes. You can write a letter or do your homework, but you can’t print it out because there’s no USB port to plug your printer into. If you already have a WiFi network and your existing Mac or PC has a printer and it’s set up for printer sharing, you should be able to access it from your iPad – but that’s quite a few ifs away from ‘it just works’. In fairness, it’s also a comment on how printers work, not how iPads work.
The biggest miss is multitasking: you can listen to your iTunes music while you work, but you can’t (based on what we know now) use a streaming music service while running another app, or keep an eye on your tweets in a corner of the screen. That’s a serious drawback, and although it’ll certainly be addressed, it’s impossible to know whether the update that addresses it will become available for this generation of iPad. Upgrading your phone after 18 months feels natural to anyone who’s accustomed to a monthly contract that subsidises the hardware cost (I’m still getting used to it, having switched from PAYG when I got my iPhone), but contemplating another £400 cash outlay might well be enough to make you wait and see.
But it’s cool! Woo!
What’s going to break your resistance is the fun you can have. Movies and TV will look fantastic at this size – big enough to see clearly, small enough to hide imperfections. (True, the 4:3 screen is odd for movies, which will appear in a strip across the middle, but you’ll stop noticing it after five minutes – and it gives you more finger room to find comfortable ways to hold the iPad while you watch.) By launch time there’ll be hundreds of well-known magazines available, cheaper than print editions and easy to read on the big screen. Books may take a little longer and make less impressive use of the colour display; despite the hype, I’m not sure plain text reading is ever going to be a compelling purpose for a digital device.
For games, by contrast, the huge touchscreen will be irresistibly attractive. Zillions of entertainment titles are already available as iPhone apps, and iPad-specific games will flood in very quickly – anyone who’s created an iPhone game already knows how to make iPad games. For users who wouldn’t normally play videogames at all, the iPad is surely going to be a major Nintendo DS-like crossover product.
Of course it’s much more expensive than a DS, but it does much more too – and it makes the DS (even the latest “oh, yet another slightly revamped version that my kids are supposed to re-nag me for, and good luck with that” DS) look hopelessly clunky. The hotter the celeb in the Nintendo ads, the more awkward she looks pretending to want to be seen dead with something that resembles one of those plastic make-up cases you give to four-year-old girls. Nobody won’t want to be seen with an iPad. And I wrote that line before the Grammys. See? I’m right about this stuff.
Did I mention it doesn’t have to do everything?
But, but, but: it has no clear purpose, say pundits. That’s bizarre. It has endless clear purposes. Yes, it’s a funny shape and size – but a shape and size that fits almost any bag carried by anyone, male or female, who uses a bag. Doesn’t seem all that inconvenient. No, it may not be practical to fish it out every time you get a tweet and hold it in mid-air with one hand while typing a reply with the other, while walking, and keeping hold of that bag. I think doing stuff while you walk around will remain a phone task – and nobody said this was a phone replacement. But when you stop for a coffee, out it comes. It’s your magazine and newspaper and quick game of Doodle Jump and email client and web browser and, of course, iPod – and it does all of those things without compromise.*
A word from the Judean People’s Front
And, and, and: it’s a closed system! Boo. Everything’s supposed to be open standards now, and Apple’s i-stuff is all proprietary. Um, except that’s a ludicrous over-simplification. iPad, like iPhone and iPod, supports loads of standards, open and otherwise; that’s how it connects to WiFi and 3G networks, displays web pages and so on. Its built-in web browser is based on an open source engine, WebKit, and Apple’s refusal to support the Flash plug-in encourages the trend away from proprietary content delivery platforms. The operating system isn’t open source, but nor are Mac OS X or Windows – why get riled about it now?
True, unlike Google’s Android, Apple’s iPhone OS doesn’t allow just anyone to create and release apps at whim. But is that a bad thing? The App Store model makes it reasonably cheap and simple for people who are fairly serious about creating apps to do so, then have an instant market for their product, which is vetted before being made available to users. The rest of us can then buy those apps without the slightest worry that we might be installing malware or just something utterly rubbish that screws up our system. Pretty massive benefit. Beyond niggling at a certain libertarian instinct, I’m struggling to see what’s so bad about this. Maybe Apple will turn evil and prevent people releasing apps that we really want! Doesn’t seem especially likely, but if they do, hey, go and buy a different computer. This is not a battle for the soul of the universe.
As Billy Bragg might say: we’re not looking for a new England, we’re just looking for a cheap computer that doesn’t screw up. And, cross fingers, we might have found one.
*The lack of Flash isn’t a compromise. I thought it would be when I got my iPhone. It’s not. YouTube already doesn’t care, for example. Flash is a technology that emerged from 1990s multimedia and appeals to developers, especially developers who aren’t really developers and are hoping they can get away with it. As a developer manqué, I love the idea, but its time has come and gone, I think. I hope Adobe will get over it and refocus on content creation tools for non-proprietary platforms.