Editorial: Apple’s iPad, From Unfair Criticisms to Valid Concerns

As is always the case when Apple announces a product well before it’s actually available to purchase, last week’s iPad event has already inspired thousands of opinion pieces, analysts’ predictions, and other miscellaneous articles—many more will follow as filler until iPads actually arrive in stores. At the risk of adding one more such item to the pile, we’d like to take a few minutes of your time to offer our personal, early take on the iPad, hopefully including a few insights that you might find useful coming from us, rather than those who rush to attack or defend any new product Apple releases. This editorial serves as a more opinionated companion to our extended, fact-based First Look at the iPad, and the video walkthrough we previously published.

Let’s Get This Out Of The Way First. Despite every attempt that has been made over the past week to trivialize the iPad, we want to be clear: we believe that the iPad will be an important and extremely successful product for Apple. Having attended Apple product launches for years, and actually spent time using the iPad, we are truly, deeply enthusiastic about this device—it is every bit the game-changing innovation that the iPhone was back in 2007, and potentially much, much bigger. Regardless of whether there’s going to be a sixth-generation iPad in 2016 that makes this one look as archaic as the first iPod from 2001, we fundamentally believe that the first iPad represents the future of computing, and that Apple got far more right than wrong with this product.

So why has public opinion been so mixed? It’s worth noting that virtually everyone who’s criticizing the device has never actually used one—the lack of hands-on experience is one of two big reasons some people rushed to attack the iPad, and since they didn’t have anything more than text, pictures and videos to rely upon, they focused their attention on easy targets: its name and specs. But these criticisms were somewhat misplaced. It’s one thing to call the iPad nothing more than a big iPod touch if you haven’t held one in your hands, but once you actually spend some time with it—see a word processor running, flip between multiple keyboards in a spreadsheet, read a book, and try playing games or videos—it’s instantly obvious that the experience is very substantially different from using an iPod touch, and offers a lot more potential.

Potential? What Do You Mean? Well, Apple only partially justified the iPad’s existence during a rollout event where people were expecting a bigger story, and there’s little doubt that the device’s full capabilities have yet to be exploited. There’s precedent for this. Over the past 10 years, Apple may have cultivated a reputation for releasing fully-formed products—ones that “just work” on day one—but problems with releases such as Apple TV and Snow Leopard have demonstrated that Apple has been willing to ship unfinished and somewhat buggy products rather than delaying them until they’re perfect. Software patches and sometimes even follow-up hardware releases have been necessary to make its initially promising offerings live up to users’ needs.

During the iPad testing, there were no obvious issues with the hardware, but there were lots of questions about the current state of its software—iPhone OS 3.2 and the applications it runs. Put aside the numerous bugs we spotted in the apps, including outright crashes, problems reformatting the screen content during orientation flips and keyboard transitions, and so on. (You can see them in the video walkthrough.) We’re sure that these sorts of things are going to be fixed, eventually. The real problem is that Apple, whether for marketing reasons (unlikely) or technical reasons (more likely), didn’t show off several things that the hardware can surely handle, and would have silenced the doubters:

* Multitasking. Being able to switch between three or four programs, and seeing Push-style Notifications (or a new overlay) to alert you of activities taking place in the background, such as instant messaging activity.

* Super Multi-Touch. A practical demonstration of simultaneous multi-finger interaction with the screen. Picture a real estate app where you actually use your fingers to open the door of a 3-D house, or using three-finger gestures to switch between multitasking apps. Gameloft’s new NOVA demonstration contained elements of these things, but they were only shown briefly, and the version of NOVA available for testing did not include the new features.

* Handwriting Recognition. An OS-level tool to convert writing and scribbling into text and shapes. This was a gimme for the company responsible for Newton, and a big missing piece for users.

* A New Wake Screen and Launcher. Apple re-used the iPhone and iPod touch Slide to Unlock screen with only the smallest changes, and then barely modified the application launcher—the latter after two years of users asking for app folders and other changes to improve the navigation experience. Had the device’s two most commonly seen interface elements been a little more novel, rather than just rescaling the iPhone UI, viewers would have been a lot happier; instead, the iPad made a “been there, done that” impression.

* Magazines. The iBooks application only goes half of the way towards establishing the iPad as a credible next-generation alternative to Kindle and other eBook readers, and Apple’s demonstration of a New York Times newspaper application rather than a PDF or app-based publishing framework for magazine and newspaper publishers suggests that it doesn’t have a complete solution in place for offering either color periodicals or their subscriptions through iTunes.

* Tethering. Offering an inexpensive iPhone-based 3G tethering feature for the Wi-Fi iPad would have thrilled millions of iPhone users, and quite possibly reduced the widespread dissatisfaction that AT&T’s customers have been feeling. It’s technically easy to accomplish on Apple’s side, and merely a matter of having the right network partner in place.

What About The iPad Name? There was a lot of fuss over the iPad name after the announcement, and we saw evidence of a gender divide, so we decided to run a reader poll to see who did and didn’t like the name, and whether it would affect purchasing decisions. With over 3,500 votes—far more than enough for a fair sample—exactly 50% of responding readers said they liked the iPad name, and 50% said that they didn’t. There was a gender divide, such that men split 52/48% between “like” and “don’t like,” and women split 34% (like) to 66% (dislike), but more importantly, 62% of respondents said that they’d consider buying the iPad, with more readers of both genders saying that they’d consider a purchase even if they didn’t like the name. In any case, the iPad name is nowhere near as wacky as Nintendo’s choice of “Wii,” and the controversy largely died down after two or three days. People, even Twitterers, will get used to it quickly.

Netbooks Versus iPads. Though Apple encouraged the comparison by specifically attacking netbooks as mediocre versions of old PCs, we consider the Netbook versus iPad “fight” to be essentially irrelevant, and focusing on tech specs to justify one position or the other is foolish. Anyone who has used a netbook knows that there are certain things that these computers can do really well with their small form factors, and other things that they almost universally stink at doing. The same is true with the iPad. Drawing a comparison between these products on anything other than price and the most basic features is a waste of time.

To be clear: the iPad in its current form is going to be a basic computer for users who favor simplicity and convenience over raw power. It is going to appeal a lot to kids and grandparents, but it’s also going to become a second or “around the house” computer for adults, and over time, it or something like it will be what retailers, delivery people, restaurant servers, and all sorts of other people literally rely upon for entering and displaying certain types of information. Netbooks and laptops will continue to have their own advantages, but they’re not going to be as intuitive and simple as the iPad.

Our Remaining Concerns. As enthusiastic as we are about the iPad’s impending release(s), there are a few things that continue to concern us. Here they are, in no particular order.

Software Bugs, Upgrade Fees and Timing. Our belief is that Apple will fix the bugs seen during the iPad demos, but it’s possible that it won’t—the iPhone OS was surprisingly problematic during and after its 1.x debut, and app-related instabilities continued early in version 2.x. How long will it take for the first major update, iPhone OS 4.0, to be released? And how much if anything is Apple going to sell OS upgrades for? The less expensive Apple TV includes free upgrades, and if history predicts the future, those upgrades will be necessary to stabilize and improve the iPad after initial release.

Flash. It’s one thing to compromise your web experience for a mobile phone, and another to do so on a screen as large as a computer’s. We’re not fans of Adobe’s Flash and would gladly see it disappear, but at a time when many sites still use Flash, Apple’s decision to shut it out of the iPad—even if Adobe offered to create a stable, lightweight version—is bad news. If Apple’s going to use its products to bludgeon the world into change, it needs to either offer tools to help Flash developers migrate to HTML5, or a compromise solution that doesn’t hurt prospective users as much during the transition.

Revisions B and C. It’s obvious that Apple will release sequels to the original iPad, and they’ll surely be better in at least three ways than today’s models—they’ll also most likely deliver better value (hopefully, universally integrated 3G) than the 2010 versions. The fact that there will be sequels isn’t necessarily a reason to pass on the first-generation versions. But on the other hand, no one knows quite yet what sorts of defects early iPads will have, or what Apple will charge for AppleCare warranty coverage. This is historically extremely important for first-generation Apple products.

Now that the dust has had some time to settle, we’re curious, readers: have your opinions changed at all since the initial iPad unveiling last week? Are you open to the possibility that the 2010 models could find a place in your home or office? Or are you holding off? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below! Numerous other questions on the iPad have been answered in our Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Apple’s iPad and 21 answers to iPad reader questions articles, as well as our latest Ask iLounge column.

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