2010-07-02

Making sense of the iPad

When I went to a workshop in California, I made the experiment of leaving my notebook at home and only taking my new iPad with me. This gave me more insight into the nature of this slightly perplexing device. The first part of this post will describe this insight. The second part will go into detail about things that I liked and disliked about the iPad.
Part 1: What is the iPad?
The iPad is very closely related to a notebook. One has to use it for a while to notice the differences:
  1. Battery capacity: This sounds minor, but is a paradigm shift. The battery lasts over 10 hours even when watching movies. Thus, you stop worrying about power outlets and just recharge over night.
  2. Weight: While it is not as light as it looks, it still weighs only 730g (3G, WiFi-only is a bit lighter); less than a third of my notebook. Additionally, you rarely need to bring a power supply, further reducing the weight. As a consequence, bringing it along is relatively painless. The 3G version allows you to go online almost anywhere. This gives you more freedom to choose where you want to use the internet, while making relatively small compromises (compared to a notebook).
  3. Robustness, shape, and touch interaction: The iPad partially owes it’s robustness to Apple’s solid manufacturing, partly to the non-existing keyboard. Together with its shape, it enables you to use a computer in new locations: You can read on the couch, in bed, or look up things in the kitchen, while worrying relatively little about dirt and other hazards. In public places, the iPad’s shape makes you look less awkward than with a notebook and unpacking or stowing away is quick. Shape and touch also enable new uses. You can use it as an (albeit crude) keyboard, join with others to play a board game, roll dice by shaking it, etc. The iPad works well for reading ebooks and PDFs, the paper formats letter and A4 can be displayed well on its screen. Additionally, there are great applications such as Instapaper that help with making content available offline.
  4. Simplicity: The limited capabilities of the iPad make it easy to use for beginners. Where else do non-technical people install numerous apps and seem to genuinely be in control of the device? This is the positive effect of Apple’s (otherwise negative) tight control of the platform: order, cleanliness and safety.
Naturally, the iPad also has limitations. Even if typing is easier than on a cell phone, it is nowhere nearly as efficient as touch typing on a true keyboard. This includes the iPad’s relatively slow way of placing the cursor. Navigating multiple web sites and applications is also not very efficient (see below). And while there are some intriguing new applications for the iPad, many old standbys from the PC world won’t run, probably ever: Firefox, Gimp, Java, Eclipse, Emacs, ...

Part 2: Likes and dislikes.
The main weakness of the iPad is that Apple gave it comparatively little RAM. With 256MB, it only has half as much RAM as the iPhone 4. This becomes an issue when working with Safari, where the second concurrently open page is usually not kept in RAM and thus must be reloaded every time it is brought from the background to the foreground. Let’s hope that this can be remedied by a different caching strategy (=in software). Only the most recent Macs are able to charge an iPad while it is running. Sync over WiFi will be coming eventually and largely solve this problem, because the iPad won’t have to be connected to a USB port, any more.

The user interface is generally intuitive, but some functions are difficult to discover. Labels under icons would help, as would indicators whether an icon is a button or a menu. Non-touch GUIs use tooltips for this purpose. Maybe touch GUIs should introduce a standard help mode. The iPad should also steal Androids universal back button, that works like in a web browser, but also between applications. For example, if you open a link in mail, you can’t go back directly, you need to find mail again on the home screen. A definite improvement will be the iOS combination of true and pseudo multitasking, where one can jump directly between applications, without home screen detours. Safari would benefit from true tabs, the current way of switching pages makes sense on the iPhone, but less so on a large screen. Safari could save space by letting one scroll the address field away. There already is the shortcut of tapping the status bar to scroll back to the top that would complement such a feature well. Another frequent operation is to switch between 3G-only and WiFi-only. WiFi-only is the airport mode plus WiFi, switching to 3G means turning the airport mode off. This correctly disables WiFi. Alas, the switch back is not as efficient and involves two steps. Lastly, the centralized settings management is showing its limits. Settings should be accessible directly from each application.

When typing, placing the cursor is intuitive, but time-consuming. I miss cursor keys (and forward delete). This might end up being Apple history repeating itself. The 1984 Mac pioneered the mouse, but did not have cursor keys, mainly because they were not strictly needed. Apple eventually added them. Typing special characters such as dashes on the iPad also tends to slow one down. One possible fix for this would be to bind multiple symbols to the same key. For example, the TouchPal keyboard on Android accesses alternate bindings by putting the finger down on a given key and then swiping to the left, top, etc. I can handle one additional keyboard layout (numbers, parentheses in addition to characters), but 2 levels are definitely too much. Depending on what I type, I find myself frequently switching automatic correction on and off, so a quick way to perform this switch would be nice.

Summary.
The iPad is the perfect travel companion, if you can live with its limitations. You can use it for brainstorming, say, to sketch slides with Keynote, but you will often want to apply the final touch on a PC or Mac. I’ve created this blog post the same way: Started and largely finished it on the iPad, polished it on a Mac. When it comes to media consumption, the iPad is hard to beat. For example, I’ve found an interesting book in a Palo Alto bookshop and bought it an hour later from my hotel room, as an ebook via Amazon’s Kindle for iPad. Reading ebooks or in fact any PDF is fun. Paper is still slightly more pleasant to read, but navigation is easier on the iPad. The vibrant app community of the iPad is one of its greatest assets, as they constantly come up with new amazing uses. Apple really needs to communicate more clearly why it sometimes rejects applications, as the current situation is very unpleasant for developers. Gruber has written an insightful post on this.

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