The whole connected world already knows. On Wednesday, Apple presented “The Book of Jobs”, also known as the iPad. The presentation of their latest creation created expectations, awesomeness and, in some, disappointment.
What do I think of it? I must admit that while following the presentation online from different sources on the web (engadget, gizmodo…), I felt disappointed. But after I saw yesterday night the keynote video, I became more positive about it, not entirely, as when the iPhone was released, but I saw its good things, for it has many.
Why do I want an iPad? This is the first question I ask to myself before buying any technology product. They need to have a function, not just being fun. When I was 13 they released in Spain a video recorder that had wonderful features: image effects, multi-image selection of channels and other eye candy functions. The ad of the device said something like “you will have so much fun with your VCR!”. I went to see it in the El Corte Inglés (a big chain of department stores in Spain). There I met a couple of 30-40-year-old guys trying it. Pretty quickly the conversation derived towards its “fun features” until one of them said “I don’t care where it does and how much ‘fun’ you can have with it, at the end what you want is to record movies. If it does it better than others, I’ll buy it, otherwise I’ll buy another one that’ll cost me half the price.” Since then, I buy technology according to my practical needs and how well they satisfy them.
What about the iPad then? I travel frequently. And when I travel I need 7 essential things from my computer: web, email, books, music, video, word processor and presentation software. A 250 GB hard disk, 4 gb RAM, 13-inch screen, 2 kg Macbook is far too much for my mobile needs. A 8 GB, slow processor, 3.5-inch screen, 150 gr iPhone is far too little. So for some time, I’ve been wishing to have a device that’s between a Macbook and an iPhone that frees me from the weight and cumbersomeness of a laptop and the limitations of an iPhone. The iPad seems to be a great answer to my needs.
Why then did I feel disappointed when I saw it?
Nice & Ugly
The iPad looks good, but it is not beautiful. It looks like a fat and big iPod touch with a wide black bezel. The bezel might be necessary to avoid accidental input with your fingers when holding it, but does it need to be so big? Why did they have to copy so much the iPhone/Touch design, including the home button? My guess is that they want to capture the iPhone market, and for that they need to offer a familiar product that works and looks as the iPhone does. Yet, I think the design of small mobile device like the iPhone is not necessarily the best design for a multimedia mobile device like the iPad.
So much space!
The first image of the iPad I saw it was of the home screen. It looks exactly like an iPhone/touch home screen but with much more space! There is so much free space around that it looks strange, weird, like something is missing. It is the representation of the close-nature of the device (more below). Unlike a Mac (or a PC), you cannot put your icons wherever you want on the desktop, add as many as you want, change the size of the icons, put files, shortcuts, etc. You are constrained by Apple designers to have your applications (only applications and “webapps”!) within the frame determined by the device, just like the iPhone. You can only do two things: change the order of your apps or click on them. That’s it. A solution to the excess of space could have been to make the icons a bit bigger, would that look better? I doubt it, for the problem at the end is not the space, but the restrictions imposed by closing this technology.
The wonders of doing more than one thing at a time
Like his brothers iPhone and iPod Touch, the iPad seems not to allow multitasking between third-party applications, only core (Apple’s) apps can multitask. Justifiably, geeks, pundits, Apple fans and many other tech-lovers are up in arms for this missing feature. This is a direct consequence of closing the iPad. Without multitasking one cannot listen to Pandora or Last FM, tweet and write a document on Pages. Without more than one application open at the same time, one cannot listen to the streaming of Tony Blair giving evidence to the UK’s Iraq war inquiry, while writing this blog post and checking emails, as I am doing right now. This is a serious limitation that I reckon will be quickly corrected by Apple in the near future. Yet the main problem will still subsist…
It’s the openness, stupid!
Three years ago, in 2007, Steve Jobs said in an interview after the presentation of the iPhone:
We define everything that is on the phone…You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers.” (taken from a reference to NYT article in J. Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It)
The logic is very clear. An iPhone is primarily a phone, thus it needs to work as a phone, without risk of being disrupted like a computer can be sometimes. I understand (and, up to a limit, accept) the argument. But what about the iPad? What’s the argument in favour of making and keeping it closed. I am afraid, the argument is twofold: (1) Jobs likes all machines to work as they are originally designed for, at the cost of limiting (and even killing) their ‘generativity’ (using J. Zittrain’s terminology), (2) commercial reasons: by keeping it closed, Apple can controlled the distribution of software and content, getting a good share of the benefits generated.
In my opinion, this is the main problem with the iPad. Jobs said during the presentation that it was between a Mac and an iPhone, but actually it is much closer to the latter than to the former. Limiting its use and development will stop people from using it in innovative ways that can bring the same benefits that the main two open technological platforms have brought us: the computer and the Internet. Until Apple sees the logic of this argument, the solution will be ‘hacked generativity’, the one that it is produced against the wishes of the owner of the technology, as it has happened with the iPhone from day one, which forced Apple to open it to applications (remember when Jobs wanted the iPhone to just run webapps?).
Reading all the reasons behind my disappointment, you may wonder how I became more positive after watching the keynote. The answer comes from replying to another question:
What’s the iPad for? In disappointment I twittered that “1 buys a Mac because 1 needs a computer. 1 buys an iPhone because 1 needs a phone. What the hell do u need 2 buy an #ipad? #fail #apple”. At that moment, I couldn’t figure out why someone would buy an iPad. Yet I didn’t realise that what Apple was doing was to define a need that’s been shaping for the last decade: personal multimedia. The iPad is the first truly personal multimedia device. As such, it has a huge potential.
Now, I am not with those that loath the iPad by the same reasons I explained above and more. I am still not, however, with those like Stephen Fry whom, citing the precedent of the iPhone, are accepting the success of the iPad unconditionally. Its success, and any positive change that the iPad can help realise in the future as habilitating technology, depend very much on how it develops and not entirely on its present or past. Opening it will be a good step in the right direction.