In late January, Apple finally announced their tablet device that they had been rumoured to be developing for years. Steve Jobs, in his presentation at the announcement, said that Apple was targeting the market between the smartphone and the laptop, and their answer was the iPad.
Immediately prior to announcing the name of the device, Jobs said that in order to justify its existence, a device in the middle ground between laptop and smart phone had to be better at tasks than both. He said, “Netbooks aren’t better at anything.” The problem is that they are, but we’ll get to that later.
What is a computer?
Laptops – including, at least for the moment, MacBooks – are computers. Many smart phones such as Windows Mobile and Android are computers as well. Any user can write and install software on a computer, without having to wait for approval or authorization by a third party. Multiple applications can be running simultaneously on modern computers, allowing tasks to be performed in the background while not requiring the user’s attention. A computer is customizable through unregulated software modifications.
What is an appliance?
We’ve used the term appliance to describe toasters, coffee makers and refrigerators. Other appliances include your cable box, Xbox, GPS, iPod and camera. While some of these appliances support apps that increase the functionality, these apps are generally regulated and only available through special channels such as an app store. Appliances can run one application at a time, as anyone who has ever tried to play two games at once on an Xbox knows.
What is the iPad?
The iPad is unquestionably an appliance. Like the iPod Touch and iPhone, a user can’t write and install software on it without going through special channels. It’s locked down and restricted, just like your cable box.
The iPad isn’t a computer, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place. Jobs is right that the device will be great for web browsing and reading email. It’ll be stellar for reading books and news. The biggest problem with laptops and modern computer monitors is the aspect ratio – news is much easer to consume when it’s in portrait mode, but monitors on laptops are nearly always wider than they are tall. The iPad will be able to view content in portrait mode, creating the perfect reading experience. The iPad will be an excellent content consumption device, crushing the Amazon Kindle in nearly way.
Apple has maintained its stance regarding Flash and Java, ensuring that the stability and privacy aspects of this device are maintained by preventing these two technologies from trashing the browsing experience like they do on computers. In fact, the lack of Flash and Java on the iPad will hopefully push acceptance of web standards to the point where these pernicious technologies fade away.
As a media and gaming device, the iPad looks beautiful. Viewing pictures, movies and videos will be a great experience. Lacking a camera, card reader and USB ports, viewing is about all it will be good at – without the additional, awkward USB adapters.
Where the iPad will fall short is in content creation. Jobs described the keyboard as a “dream to type on” just before he hunted and pecked for a few letters in his one-sentence email sent during his demonstration. Writing thousand-word blog posts will most likely be arduously possible but undesirable on a capacitive keyboard, aligned at 180 degrees with the screen. The optional keyboard dock is a head-fake towards solving this problem, but as anyone who has ever used a keyboard with a touch-screen device knows, a keyboard without a mouse is a very frustrating and unergonomic experience.
This content creation role is where netbooks excel. Laptops aren’t very portable. Netbooks nearly fit in your coat. The physical keyboards on netbooks are very usable – indeed our 10″ EeePC sports a keyboard that is so big it’s almost a downgrade from the smaller keyboard we loved on the 9″ Eee. Netbooks are computers and can run multiple, custom software applications simultaneously.
The iPad is going to be a great appliance. It’s going to be a Kindle killer. It’ll work great for browsing auction inventory and for Internet bidding – so long as the bidding provider doesn’t rely on Flash or Java. It’s truly a living room device, and we’re going to be making space on our coffee table for an iPad – right next to the netbook.