Apple iPad: The Computer For The Rest Of Us (Five Years From Now)


Once you’re done laughing at the stupid name (by the way, “Wii” isn’t funny any more, either), you might realize that that despite the lukewarm reaction by the tech press, the iPad might very well be the culmination of the “Computer For The Rest Of Us” goals that begot the Macintosh line 26 years ago. If you don’t, read on–I’m going to explain why.

I know plenty of people with Apple products who buy it for the cachet–especially recent adopters of the last 5 years or so. These people are generally fully capable of dealing with the intricacies of a Windows PC (whether they like it or not is another story, of course) but they opt to get an iPhone and/or a MacBook because they look prettier. My bet is that anyone who has ever been able to make that kind of purchase will eventually consider an iPad–maybe not now, maybe not next year, but certainly within the next five years.

Ancient History

The impetus of the original Macintosh was to make a personal computer that anyone could use–hence the emphasis of a graphical user interface over a DOS-style command-line interface. This goal is what carried Apple (and its users) from 1984 to the OS9 days, what sustained them all during the darker years where the performance gap was ever-increasing and newer incarnations of Windows proved to be more stable and more versatile, thanks to the lack of hardware lock-in and protected memory, which meant Windows could power cheaper computers and allow a program to crash without forcing a reboot.

This goal extended over to the iPod, which was designed so well that it didn’t matter to most consumers that other MP3 players could be had with more features for less money. And it eventually birthed the iPhone–a smartphone so stylish, sexy, and simple that it made the competitors look the exact opposite–even if all the users were already perfectly capable of dealing with the complexity of a BlackBerry.

The yin to Apple’s yang, of course, was the Windows PC world, which was ideal for A) anyone looking to keep initial costs low, and B) anyone who wanted to use a PC for practically anything. A) was simple–the cost of buying a Windows PC was almost always lower than buying an equivalently configured Macintosh, and B) is what I tend to call the Swiss Army Knife model of computing. These are the users that love that they can do just about anything with their PC, and if they find something they can’t do, they find a way to do it–with an app or a hardware hack or a new OS or whatever. These folk didn’t like the Mac because, frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot of hackery you could do with it–neither the hardware nor the OS were nearly as flexible as the Windows world was, which would let you do anything (and fuck up anything).

Of course, the Windows world is what set the standard for the longest time, especially in professional environments–the Mac was typically for home users with high budgets, and anyone working in art/layout/video editing etc. For most of my peers, Windows was something they grew up with, and even once they bought a Mac (which many of them eventually did) they were perfectly capable of handling themselves with the everyday complexities of a PC–complexities which the older generation struggled with.

More On Swiss Army Knives

Ever used a Swiss Army Knife before?

I always thought they were so cool when I was growing up, just in case I was outside of civilization and needed a screwdriver, or a nail file, or a pair of miniature scissors. I’ve owned a handful in my life, and they all had two things in common: first, I rarely ever needed to actually use any of its tools, and second, whenever I did need to use it, it sucked. It might have gotten the job done, but not well enough that I’d ever want to use it if I had any serviceable alternative.

A monster Swiss Army Knife.

You might want this, but you're never going to use it.

This is where the PC market is. Since the introduction of the personal computer, the things we can do with a computer have gotten bigger, better, faster, and generally more awesome, but the actual shape of the computer hasn’t changed much. Keyboard, mouse (or mouse-like pointing device), computer guts, display. Whether it’s a desktop, laptop, or even most smartphones, it’s going to look something like this.

There’s no doubt that we can do awesome things with PCs, but the equivalent would have been figuring out bigger and better tools to put on the same dinky Swiss Army Knife. Whether we’re making movies, chatting with friends across the world, or filling out our TPS reports, we’re using a keyboard and mouse to make things happen on a screen.

If you’re one of the people who reacted to the initial iPad announcement with “That’s nice, but my iPhone can handle all my on-the-go Internet needs and my MacBook can handle everything else, so why would I want an iPad?” then you are firmly grounded in the Swiss Army Knife world of computing. You may disagree with the analogy because you don’t think computers are a pain in the ass to use, but try explaining how (and why) to get on Twitter or Facebook to your grandparents. It’s not something wrong with them–it’s simply a measure of how counterintuitive and specialized computers are.

But Why A Tablet?

Think about every futuristic PC interface you’ve seen. Most of the time, it’s got some kind of Minority Report-esque Power Glove input device. At the very least you’re using some kind of touchscreen (see Star Trek). Mechanical input devices like a keyboard don’t belong in The Jetsons.

Keyboards give us a fixed-input device with 104 keys and several different sets of inputs thanks to the modifier keys. Once we learn how to use them, we can type quickly, but for practically everything else it’s too much.

Think about a hardware keyboard on a smartphone (the BlackBerry, for example)–the buttons are tiny, and there’s a lot of them. In order to cram a reasonably usable keyboard onto a smartphone, you need to make tradeoffs, which usually come in the form of a smaller display, which makes Web browsing suck. A touchscreen, by contrast, lets you use your display as your input device, meaning you can use a bigger display.

A Blackberry smartphone.

Fuck this keyboard.

Personally, I never appreciated any of this until my boss gave me his old iPod Touch. Of course, it only gets Internet access over Wi-Fi, which I have at home and in the office (where my full-fledged computers reside). And I already have a few media players–an iPod Shuffle and an iPod Classic, not to mention my older Sony Walkman cell phone. Nevertheless, I found myself using the iPod Touch for all kinds of things around the house because it was easier. Click, swipe, I’m on the Web. Or updating Twitter. Or whatever.

So where does the iPad fit into this? Simple–it’s not aiming to replace your iPhone, and it’s not aiming to replace your MacBook. What’s in the middle? Well, for Apple loyalists, nothing–but that doesn’t stop them from yearning for an Apple netbook.

I’ve been an ardent fan of netbooks before I even knew what a netbook was, back in the days of the eMate 300, when rumors of the upcoming “iBook” consumer laptop placed it at $400 with a 20-hour battery life. Most of my nerd life these days happens online in a Web browser, and so I want a device that’s readily portable, low-powered, and Internet-capable. (That’s why I’ve been checking out netbooks from the PCW Test Center weekend after weekend.) I’m a big fan of the idea of a netbook because I love the thought that I can bust out a blog post from wherever I am without worrying about the weight or the expense of my computer.

The problem is, the netbook is basically the quintessential Swiss Army Knife computer. It’s small, cheap, and capable of doing a lot of things that your full-sized PC can do. In order to accomplish that, however, the screen is dinky, the processor is underpowered, and most importantly, the keyboard and trackpad are awful. Even this Lenovo S12 I’m using now, with the typically awesome Lenovo keyboard, is giving me problems every 5 minutes because the trackpad is too damn close to the keyboard–and it’s a 12-inch laptop, which is big for a netbook. Somehow, I don’t think it’s just my goliath hands that make netbooks kind of a pain. But you can’t increase the keyboard of a netbook without increasing the general size of the whole unit.

This is why the design of the tablet is starting to make sense. The tablet itself isn’t revolutionary, of course–it looks like a big iPod Touch. (No argument there.) What the tablet does is let you separate the display from the keyboard, meaning that A) the size of one is not related to the size of the other, and B) the keyboard is not a necessary part of the unit.

People who use netbooks as devices for consuming Internet content (reading RSS feeds and ebooks, streaming music and video, won’t really need a keyboard at all. Even Web 2.0 staples like Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter don’t really demand a fully-functioning hardware keyboard that regularly, and I’m willing to bet that between Apple’s solid autocorrect functions and their excellent UI design history they’ll make a better-than-expected touchscreen keyboard which will be just fine for 90% of what most people would do with a netbook. And as far as browsing the web goes, touchscreen > trackpad all day.

For users who absolutely demand a hardware keyboard (like myself), well, we can bring our own Bluetooth keyboard or shell out $70 for the dock. I’ve commented before that an iPod Touch with really good Bluetooth keyboard support would be fine for whatever I’d want a netbook for–the iPad basically gives me a better version of that.

The Whole Multitasking Thing

So the tablet design and form factor is awesome–but why stick the iPad with the iPhone OS? It can’t even multitask, for crying out loud. That is barely forgivable in a phone, let alone something over twice the size.

This guy is multitasking.

Yeah, that's how I feel when I'm multitasking.

Some of it, I’m guessing, has to do with keeping the quality Internet experience while keeping costs low–I’m not sure about the specs, but the iPad simply might not be beefy enough to juggle multiple applications and keep each of them running smoothly.

It probably also has to do with the additional level of complexity introduced by multitasking–after all, you have to remember to quit applications before you open new ones.

When I think about what apps I usually have open for a netbook scenario, however, it’s just a Web browser with GMail in one tab, Twitter in another, Facebook another, and (maybe) WordPress if I’m working. No need for multiple apps there, just a robust browser with tab support. Between that and further development on Push notifications, the iPad might not need true multitasking.

What About Android?

“That’s great,” the techies among you say, “But why not opt for an Android tablet instead?” Plenty of them were announced at CES, after all. Google is indeed a worthy rival for Apple, and I’m not alone in thinking that Google vs. Apple is the rivalry that’s going to define much of the fate of the PC industry for the next decade or so. (More on that some other time.)


This was the Google Image Search result for "Mandroid", which is way cooler than Android.

I’m willing to bet that tablets running Android are not going to make computing nearly as easy as the iPad will. I use the hell out of plenty of Google services, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to make Android tablets nearly as compelling as the iPad for a few reasons.

First off, Google itself isn’t making a tablet (yet, anyway) and their experience with the Nexus One demonstrates that they’ve got a ways to go before they can compare their hardware chops to Apple’s. Everyone else who’s making an Android tablet will not only have to differentiate their product from the other Android tablets, they’ll have to find an angle on Apple that isn’t based around ripping them off, including more features, and charging less, because that’s probably not going to work any better than it did with the iPod and iPhone.

Second, Google makes its living giving away content that the big media companies want to charge for. With iTunes, Apple is selling TV, music, apps, and now ebooks. Partnering with Apple is a no-brainer on that one–not only do they get to charge more for their content than they’re making under Google, but with Apple able to more closely control the computing experience it’ll make it easier for them to persuade you to buy that content instead of watching it or listening to it for free.

Third, the “Apple tax” isn’t really part of the equation for this product. $500 is close to the price point we’ve been seeing for other tablets, too, except for Freescale’s as-yet-insubstantial $200 tablet. They’ve certainly struck a populist note with this one–and considering how horribly overpriced their last challenger to the netbook arena was, I’m not surprised by that.

In Conclusion

Hate it or love it, I’m thinking you, and/or possibly your parents, are going to be using an iPad around the house within five years. Calling it now.

patrick miller


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