Topics include: programming, Apple, Unix, gadgets, large-scale web sites and other nerdy stuff.

Commentary on the iPad - Earth to Pundits - WAKE UP!

2010-01-30 17:36:44

OK, I've had a few days to think about the iPad. First, I must have one. But that was pretty much a given for me even before I saw it.

What is with the name?

I suppose at some level, it was the inevitable name. It's the name they had to go with. It really explains what it is in 4 characters: if you know what an iPod is (who doesn't, with 250,000,000 sold?) and if you know what a pad (of paper) is, you get it right away.

But I am so sick if the iWhatever branding thing, I'm always hoping they'll start to move away from it. I guess not. I'll get over it, and I suppose everyone else will too.

This is the part where I say how smart I am.

Even though I got only 8 points out of 15 on my self-imposed prediction test, I'm going to congratulate myself for being exactly right on the main points: it's a giant iPod running iPhone OS with 3G. Having instant access for iPad users to all the zillions of iPhone apps in the app store is such an obvious win.

Instant Backlash, seriously?

The storm of 'meh' from the interwebs is crazy.

First of all, after slashdot's infamous 'meh' of the original iPod in 2001, you'd think people would think a little bit more before pronouncing a new Apple gadget junk. Or any gadget for that matter: until you've tried one in your hands, you really should just shut up and think for a while first. One thing I've noticed is that in all the commentary I've read this week, all the 'so what' stuff is from people who were not at the launch, who did not get to play with the device in their own hands. For the folks who were lucky enough to try one, the reaction seems to range between journalistic restraint (gosh I love this thing, but I need to talk about a few meaningless flaws so I sound objective) to outright gushing (which is how I expect I would react if I had the chance to play with one.)

Second of all, and more important: the critics and pundits who are proclaiming 'big deal, nothing to see here' couldn't be more wrong. This is a watershed event in information technology, you morons. It's like NCSA Mosaic. It's less obvious because Mosaic opened a new age in IT because it exposed millions of people to something they hadn't known about: the Web. In the case of the iPad, it's a little different: there's no clear 'new' concrete thing that is being introduced to the world. But it's there, and it's going to change everything.

The Big Deal

The huge thing, that most technology writer people just can't seem to get, is that most people, normal, non-nerd, non-techy, non-computer-hobbyist people are not like them. They don't like computers. They can use a web browser, they can mostly use word processors, though don't understand 95% of the functionality of them. They really don't even think about all the backup, network configuration, and security stuff, except as some vague, scary and complex thing that is rather worrisome.

They don't like to get new computers, because it takes forever to transfer their stuff over to it, and the OS is probably different. All the menus have changed and moved around. And after they start using the new computer, some stuff won't be the same, and they will have no idea why, or how to fix it.

For a lot of normal people, and I'm talking about smart people here, lawyers and doctors and writers, they don't even really get the paradigms that programmers have tried to create for them: windows and folders and files and processes. It's all just pictures on a screen, and these windows and docks and workspaces are just confusing and complicated. They really could care less.

So, when you read people writing, "The iPad sucks. My netbook does everything I need, is cheaper, and what's more I can do more things: multi-task; run a terminal; write programs; etc," you can be pretty sure they are one of the geeks. The iPad is not made for them. They are 5% of the population. Apple, since 2001, has been trying to come up with products that please the other 95% of the people. (Granted, they may have been trying to serve the larger side of the population since 1984, but since 2001, with the iPod, they've been succeeding better than anyone ever has.)

The revolution that is starting with the iPad is this: replace the general purpose computer as the information tool for most people with a more automatic solution. It's like John Gruber recently said: replacing manual transmissions with automatic transmissions. For most people, the iPad is all they will need for news, entertainment, communications and authoring.

The era of computers, as boxes with screens and keyboards, sold in Best Buy for the mass market is ending. People will flock to iPad-like devices, from Apple, and probably from Motorola and HTC and Archos.

Various Red Herrings

They are becoming very tiresome. These are flaws that critics will point to in the iPad, the same ones they have been whining about since the iPhone. I can't run two third-party programs at once; I can't install my own system extension for keyboard macros; I can't replace the battery; I can't run Emacs. Yes, those things are all true. But guess what? That's what your notebook or desktop computer is for. If you need to do those things, you need a computer. The iPad is not replacing your computer for you.

Most people, the vast majority of people, don't even need to do these things. And if they sort of would like to sometimes, guess what: given the choice of the scary headache of maintaining a computer vs. having a simple magic device, they'd happily go with the magic.

The only legitimate complaint I've heard that is a use case for regular people is this: I can't listen to Pandora while I read my email or do other things on the iPhone/iPod/iPad. Yes, there are a few things, a very few use cases where running a background task is actually useful for a lot of people. If that's a dealbreaker, then an iPad isn't for you. Maybe Apple will license Pandora into the iPod app; maybe they will actually allow users to designate a limited number of apps to be allow to run in the background. But don't hold your breath.

The iPad's Flaw

The gaping hole in my whole thesis is this: you actually need a computer to own an iPad. So this great freedom I'm going on about, about being free from the tyranny of the traditional computer is just so much bullshit. You still need a computer so you can back up all the settings and movies and music you've loaded onto your iPad.

Apple needs to build some infrastructure so that you don't need a Mac to support your iPad. This may take the form of automatic online backup and sync (to, or maybe some kind of sync to a time capsule/airport at home. Android phones, at least as of 2.x seem to have this: when I switched from my Verizon Droid to my T-Mobile Nexus One, I did nothing but sign in with my google account and all my settings, accounts and apps I had downloaded appeared on the new phone in a minute or two. I lost nothing, I didn't even have to think about it. The iPad will have to work this way for the transition to pad computing to be complete. I'm fairly certain Apple is well aware of this.

My experience with the Nexus One leaves me greatly encouraged that Google totally understands the revolution that is coming with the advent of the iPad. In fact, given my computerless transition from Droid to Nexus One, I'd say they are already perfectly poised to release a pad computer that needs no box computer to support it.

Can you hear me now?

If you didn't realize where things were headed when the iPhone, the iPod touch and the various Android phones came out, the iPad is your big wake-up call. Everything is about to change in a huge way. Wake up.

Updates: the part where I link to articles that support my position and ignore others

Frasier Speirs - Future Shock

Popular Science - Future

John Gruber - Automatic Transmission

Steven Frank - New world vs. old world

Byte Cellar - Guaranteed Future

Alex Payne - Conflicted but totally sees what's coming.

Fabrizio Capobianco - iPad scorecard

Ethan Nicholas - My Mom's next computer

Dan Moren - Third Revolution