After Apple introduced the iPad in April, it rapidly took over so much of my computing time that my MacBook Pro and iPhone were essentially sidelined. The laptop gathered dust and I started to forget where I’d left the phone at night—no easy feat considering that they’d previously been my constant companions for the past roughly three years. My desktop Mac literally remained necessary for business purposes, but for everything else, I was using the iPad. And this was only in the iPad’s first month, with the first wave of iPad-specific applications—ones that had been rushed out and in many cases only modestly enhanced from earlier iPhone and iPod touch versions.
Over the past few weeks, a bunch of things have changed: the iPad’s apps. They’re just getting better and better. In some cases, they’ve become so superior to desktop applications that I’m shifting even further away from using a computer, and towards using the iPad for as many purposes as possible. When I’m checking the news, I now prefer to do it with the iPad app Reeder rather than the Mac version of NewsFire, which I used religiously for the past year. PDFs now go into the just-updated version of iBooks, which really speeds up the previously sluggish display of big documents. Gaming, watching videos, and web browsing have shifted almost entirely to the iPad as well, with increasingly impressive games and greater support for the iPad’s native video and browser capabilities.
The thing that’s most striking about the iPad user experience at this stage is the speed at which it transitions between different usage models—and users. One minute, I’m browsing through web pages as I sit on the sofa with my daughter, who’s watching Dora or Diego on a nearby television. Three minutes later, we’re together on YouTube hunting for Beatles videos, and soon thereafter, we’re doing puzzles in Shape Builder, tapping on sheep in Baa Baa Black Sheep, or sketching out letters in iWriteWords. She’s two years old and switches between apps with speed and confidence that dazzle her grandparents… and her parents. Then the iPad’s back in my lap again, and a minute later, doing something completely different. Even the best Mac computers can’t pull off that sort of trick.
Part of this is due to iOS, which offers such an instant-on, quick app-loading experience that Macs now feel comparatively slow—though multitasking makes them much more powerful once you’ve loaded a few apps. Most of the iPad’s appeal, however, is due to the work of third-party developers who have innovated more in a short period of time than most users could have ever thought possible. Today’s iPhone + iPad Gems column is a prime example: even when apps such as Flipboard and Popplet show up in the App Store in need of additional work, their bedrock content is so compelling that you can’t help but feel that mouse-based desktop computing is going to fade away, replaced by beautiful, powerful touch-based apps. Why bother with a full-sized computer when the iPad makes doing the same tasks feel so much better?
There are things that the iPad still can’t do as well as a Mac, though half are purely software-limited, and the other half are due to hardware differences. Facebook feels weak on the iPad because the web site still doesn’t support iPad media uploading or chat, and the official app is stuck with iPhone 3G-era limitations. Photo browsing on the iPad is awesome, but iPad Camera Connection Kit importation bugs in the Photos application have really limited the quantity of picture processing I’ve wanted to achieve through the otherwise capable device. Mail still stinks because iOS 3.2 doesn’t support unified mailboxes. Streaming of iPad audio and video content to a TV doesn’t happen because there’s no Apple software for it—even with the Apple TV—and there are still rare occasions when I need to use a computer to view Flash or other content on a web site. Finally, video calling and video editing just aren’t happening on the iPad for now; blame missing components or the lack of software and accessory support as you prefer.
Even with these issues yet to be addressed, the iPad’s utility has continued to grow so impressively over time that it’s certain to become my primary computer in the near future. While writing this article, the power went out in my neighborhood, stopping my typing mid-sentence as my computer and entire wireless network went down. The iPad, complete with its 3G wireless connection, stayed on and ready to use. There seemed to be a message there: if only I’d been typing on it, instead, this article would have been up already—and my work day would have ended 10 minutes earlier.