Apple iPad – a bridge not quite far enough?

17 Jan

Originally posted 01 February 2010 @ Foviance.com

Sanitary napkin jokes aside, there’s plenty of excitement about Apple’s newly announced iPad. The hyperbole is flowing thick and fast : “magical, revolutionary, unbelievable”, not surprisingly most of it is coming from the Applecamp. Admittedly, it’s a cool device and you know it will be well-designed, well-built and easy to use…it’s from Apple after all. I want to like it, I really do, but as with many Apple products once you get past the initial ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and look at the practical user experience, the flaws start to emerge. Ok, sure, it does things differently but does it do things better? Let’s go back to first principles of user-centred design: what problem is Apple solving? In his keynote address, Steve Jobs described the iPad as filling the middle ground between a smart phone and a laptop, but I would dispute whether any such middle ground exists, and even if does the iPad doesn’t fill it. On closer inspection, it seems to me as though Apple have invented a solution to non-existent problems: if you hate browsing the web on a smartphone because of the small screen size, you’re not going to switch to a device which gives you a bigger screen but has a virtual keyboard and by nature of its form factor is much harder to type on. If you hate lugging a laptop around just to watch movies, you’re not going to use a device which is heavier than a phone and requires you to hold it in both hands the whole time. It seems as though the only real benefits to the iPad are a bigger screen than a smartphone and a smaller form factor than a laptop, which in themselves aren’t exactly problems. It’s not particularly innovative and not particularly practical.

Jobs calls using the iPad “the best browsing experience you’ve ever had”, of which I am sceptical for a number of reasons but two stand out: 1) it’s supposed to be a portable device but there’s no way you could hold it in one hand for long periods of time comfortably and type comfortably with the other, 2) it doesn’t support Flash (as per the iPhone) so forget about Flash-based games and websites.

They’re making a lot of the browsing experience. Jobs claims that “holding the internet right there in your hands” is “an incredible experience”. Really? I for one have no desire to hold the internet in my hands, and if I have to use both hands to hold this device then what am I typing with? In reality, there’ll be less holding in your hands and more cradling it in one arm. Watching Jobs demo it just made my hands ache. Holding the edge of it in one hand for any amount of time would be a painful experience/kill the tendons in your thumb and wrist, which would be even worse if you’re typing away with the other hand; with no built-in stand or support you’d have to carry it the whole time or lay it flat on your lap or a table to watch movies/TV (although you can buy a case which folds back into a stand).

The iPad is supposedly “a dream to type on” but I don’t see how it could be. Standing up cradling it on one arm and typing with one hand seems less efficient than typing with two thumbs on a smartphone, and if you lay it flat on a table to type with both hands then you’re no better off than you are right now with a laptop but with worse posture.

Jobs pulled no punches in pointing out the issues with netbooks in performing tasks such as email, web browsing, viewing photos and listening to music, but avoided directly throwing down the challenge to laptop makers. As it is, the iPad is little more than an over-sized iPod or an over-priced digital photoframe, depending on your socio-technical proclivities. Without a doubt it kills any other e-reader or e-book, although one of the other major drawbacks is, like the iPhone, the closed app environment: the only way to get content onto it is to buy it from iTunes, the App Store or the newly announced iBook store. With the additional purchase of accessories (such as the keyboard dock) it could possibly give netbooks a run for their money, but with the stripped-down iPhone OS it’s already hamstrung before it’s out of the blocks. Overall it seems to fall short of the mark on so many fronts, so was it that really worth all that sound and fury?

To Apple’s credit, they are very responsive to user feedback. When the iPhone first launched it wasn’t all that great, but still streets ahead of any other smartphone. And in a very short timeframe it has become a remarkably useful and usable device. Lack of credible competition sees the iPad with a tougher row to hoe but I wouldn’t be surprised to see future iterations running OSX with a built-in camera and Flash support right out of the box at a much cheaper price point. Regrettably, it’s all hype and potential for now, so watch this iSpace…but don’t hold your breath for open file formats.

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