by: Eli Ungar-Sargon
The wait is finally over. Sort of. Early on Wednesday, Apple unveiled its long-rumored tablet computer, the iPad, and announced that it would start shipping at the end of March.Is this the reinvention of portable computing as we know it? Probably not, but it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions. Let’s take a a moment to step away from the famous Steve Jobs reality distortion field and evaluate what we know so far.
The iPad is a multitouch Tablet computer running a variant of the iPhone operating system on a custom built “Apple A4” chip. It has a 9.7’’ LED backlit display, boasts 10 hours of battery life and comes in three basic models: 16 GB ($499), 32 GB ($599), and 64 GB ($699). All of the models come with Wifi 802.11 a/b/g/n, but if you want the convenience of 3G connectivity, you will need to pay another $130 over the base price of each model and to use it, you will need to sign up for a pay-as-you-go data plan with AT&T. Two such plans will be available when the iPad ships: A $14.99 monthly plan with a 250 MB limit and a $29.99 monthly plan with unlimited data. The Wifi only iPads will be available on March 27 and the 3G enabled iPads will be available on April 27. International carrier deals are still pending, but they should be in place by June. So much for the hard facts.
The New Kid on the Block
The most important question that everyone had going into this event was: Where will this product fit into our lives? Personally, I thought that there simply wasn’t enough room in between the laptop and the smartphone to justify a distinct product category. I reasoned that Apple must be going for a laptop replacement and my expectations were set accordingly. I now know that Apple disagrees with me on this point.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, he did so with one of his brilliantly simple slides. It was divided into three segments with an iPhone on the left, a Macbook Pro on the right, and an open space in the center. Jobs then went on to say that for a product to succeed in this in-between space it would need to do the following things better than both a smarthone and a laptop: Web browsing, email, photos, video, music, games, and eBooks. He then proceded to explain why the iPad was better suited to these tasks than either a smartphone or a laptop. It’s a provocative argument. Let’s examine it more closely.
Ever since I got my first iPhone, I’ve felt that touching a link on a website is a more intuitive way of browsing the internet than using a mouse, or a trackpad. The one thing that makes the experience of browsing the web on the iPhone less than ideal is its size. The iPad solves this and maintains the touch advantage. Interestingly, the iPad continues the iPhone’s venerable tradition of locking Flash content out of the experience. Overall I have to agree with Steve on this one. Despite the inconvenience of not having flash, surfing the web on a touch tablet of this size should provide a superior experience.
When it comes to email, a laptop has a clear advantage over a smartphone, due to the comfort and accuracy of having a real keyboard. The iPad has a virtual touch keybard that is almost the size of an actual hardware keyboard when it’s in landscape mode. Surely, you might opine, the iPad’s virtual keyboard isn’t superior to a laptop for typing out emails! And you would be correct. In this arena, the experience of typing on an iPad alone would fall somewhere in between that of a smartphone and a laptop. Fortunately, Apple also announced that they will be shipping an accessory physical keyboard for the iPad that will be priced at $69. I’m going to disagree with Steve on this one. I think that a laptop still provides the best email experience.
Photos and Video
The superiority of interacting with photos on a large multitouch screen is fairly obvious. When it comes to photographs, bigger is better and in the case of the iPad, Apple was actually able to improve upon the excellent multitouch interface found in the iPhone photo app. But what about video? Here things don’t seem as obvious to me. For the iPad to be a really excellent web surfing device, it had to maintain a 4:3 aspect ratio screen. However, most video content these days is produced at or near a 16:9 aspect ratio. This means that the viewer will have to choose between seeing the entire image with black bars on top and bottom or filling the screen and cutting off the sides. Granted, even with black bars, the iPad video image is much larger than that of the iPhone, but most laptops these days have 16:9 screens, not to mention higher resolution displays (the iPad comes in at a little under 720p). Nevertheless, I can’t think of another device that allows 10 hours straight of near HD quality video playback on a single charge. When it comes to photos, the iPad comes out on top. For video, I think it’s a toss up between the iPad and a laptop.
Music and Games
For music, an argument can be made that more screen real-estate yields benefits for managing a music library and it seems that Apple has rewritten their music-related applications to take advantage of the iPad’s larger screen. The iPad has an even clearer advantage when it comes to gaming. The combination of multitouch and the built in accelerometer made the iPhone a very succesful protable gaming platform, but there are times when the size of the screen is a limiting factor. The combination of touch and a larger screen will be put to great use by game developers, some of whom gave impressive demonstrations at the presentation. The music point seems debatable, but I see a clear advantage to gaming on the iPad.
It’s the final category, eBooks, in which the iPad really shines. Because of its form factor, the iPad provides a reading experience that is an order of magnitude better than what either a smartphone, or a laptop can provide. On this subject, Apple announced a new app called iBook which is designed specifically for the iPad. Borrowing its user interface from a great iPhone app “Classics,” the iBook app presents the user with a virtual bookshelf populated by books that can be purchased in the built in iBook Store. Apple also announced that a handfull of the biggest publishers have already signed up to sell their books through the iBook Store and Jobs invited all of the other publishers to join in the coming months. I think that eBooks on the iPad is a slam-dunk. No other eBook reader can touch it.
Another Apple Success?
Three years ago, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at Macworld, I had a gut feeling that it would be a revolutionary device. I don’t have the same feeling about the iPad. First, it’s just not as easy to explain. How would you describe the iPad to your aunt? Okay, so first you’d have to apologize for the gender-insensitive name, but once you got that out of the way, what would you say? That it’s an oversized iPhone without the phone? A big iPod Touch? Jobs had a nice line in his presentation. He said “It’s more intuitive than a laptop and more capable than a smartphone.”But if that’s the best that the greatest marketer of our time can come up with, it makes me wonder who the iPad will appeal to. Mr. Jobs’s logic seems for the most part to be sound. The iPad does MOST of the above computing tasks better than a smartphone or a laptop. The real question, however, is whether it does those tasks so much better that we’ll spend between $500 and $800 on it… My suspicion is that for most people the answer to that question is no. But the truth is that we don’t really know enough yet to call this one. The iPad has tremendous potential as an all-around content consumption device. Moreover, once developers get their hands on it, there’s no telling what it will be capable of. In the end, it will be the content providers and app developers who determine the success or failure of the iPad.