Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The iPad: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I'm a hard-core lover of Apple products; between my wife & I, we own 4 Macs. However, I also hate Apple's stance as a company on lots of topics. In fact, I would probably never use their products if they weren't so damn good. I'm just disclaiming that I may not be objective (although I try to be).

I was not one of the early enthusiasts for the iPad when it was first announced. I did not pre-order one and really had no interest in one until I had a chance to touch one. It didn't seem to make a lot of sense for me: I split my time between my laptop and the iPhone (which I truly love). The iPad didn't seem to offer much that I didn't already have.

But I realized in the first 10 minutes of playing with one that I was looking at the first incarnation of the next platform, and I quickly ordered one (actually, 2 — one for my wife & one for me — like the iPhone, I knew she would never wait for a hand-me-down). This blog is a culmination of my thoughts and impressions.

General Thoughts

It doesn't take long using an iPad (especially if you've been to the Apple iPhone school of user experience) for it to feel natural. The main difference is how much the platform manages to disappear, more quickly than any device I've ever used. That's one of the things I love so much about OS X: it tries to get and stay out of your way.

Using a well designed iPad app (and there are already some pretty stunning ones), you quickly forget all about the hardware/software combination that is the life support for the app. The application just seems to work.

Canon Cat

In The Humane Interface, Jef Raskin (one of the early Macintosh developers and a well respected researcher in human-computer interaction) wrote about human computer interaction at a pretty abstract level. He designed and sold a computer called the Canon Cat which implemented some of his user interface ideas. One of the most shocking things that Raskin pointed out is that computer users don't want file systems, they just want to work on stuff. The Canon Cat had no recognizable file system: you typed documents and then searched to find previous ones. The iPhone/iPad also have no visible file system: every application "owns" their own data. This causes a few headaches for applications that need to sync their data or share files, but applications (like DropBox) fill that void nicely. I'd rather a few applications figure this out for themselves rather than punish every user with having to understand the nuances & headaches from dealing with what really should be low-level abstractions. How many family members have you had to walk through downloading a family photo and then helping them figure out where it ended up on their computer?

For those who doubt what a paradigm shift this is (and how far away even close seeming competitors are), consider that at the time I wrote this, 2 of the top selling applications on the Android store don't make sense on the iPad: a task killer & a file system browser. Despite the cosmetic similarities between the iPad and competitors, the differences go much deeper.

Death of the Mouse

The iPad represents the death of the mouse. You don't need one, don't miss one, and it would be a huge leap backwards to try to use one. Your finger does what needs to be done, and it's scary easy. The only real exception to this is stylus-type usage. The iPad is a lackluster real-time note taking device for handwritten notes. However, the built-in keyboard works better than I expected.

The Good

As you can probably guess, I like a lot of stuff about the iPad.


My general computing time (time spent on notebook, iPad, & iPhone (minus calls)) has gone slightly up since getting the iPad. Most of the displaced time has come from the iPhone. If you look at 100% of my ipad usage, I estimate that it comes from 80% less time on the phone and 20% less time on my computer. When I first got it, I had the normal hedonic glow I get from new cool toys, and I looked for excuses to use it. That quickly went away, and now i find myself using it for very specific tasks. Case in point: I realized I wanted to add this section while standing in line to get on a plane; I'm typing this in my seat waiting for the rest of the passengers to board. Not enough time to get the entire laptop out, but way more than I would want to type on my phone. Once you've been using the iPad, some of the applications on the iPhone feel really claustrophobic. Some applications (and games) still work best on the phone, but there is certainly the case that some (most?) work better on the more capable hardware and form factor.

Killer Uses

Watching movies rocks on the iPad. It has 1024x768 resolution (which was the standard resolution for my laptop for years) which is beautiful. Watching content at the gym is absolutely transformative. The Google map application quickly shows that this is the perfect form factor and, more importantly, interaction model. The way you pinch and zoom to navigate around the map feels right, along with the gradual exposition of details as you do so.

Listening to music with the lyrics available is another killer feature for me (I listen to a fair amount of music — progressive rock & opera — where the lyrics really matter). If you associate the lyrics to a song as part of the meta-data in iTunes, the iPad has a mode that shows you the lyrics to the song that's playing. You've been able to do this on iPods & the iPhone for a while, but this form factor makes all the difference.

The iPad is definitely a "lean back" device, rather than a "lean forward" device. The interaction model for a laptop is well established and doesn't have a lot of options because of the form factor. Whether at a desk or an airplane, you pretty much use it the same way. The iPad, on the other hand, has lots of different interaction modes. I've seen a lot written about "habit spaces" and interaction models — the iPad makes you realize how true that is, and provides a blank slate for creating some new habit spaces & interaction models.

Using a mind mapping tool on the iPad makes me never want to go back to using a notebook for this activity. The mind mapping tools aren't as powerful yet, but the interaction is exactly right. I find I use my iPad a lot for brainstorming away from my computer, which is where I would like for it to happen because of habit spaces. And OmniGraffle for the iPad makes you rethink how drawing tools should work.

One must-have accessory is the Apple case for the iPad. It is a marvel of engineering in its own right, and it makes it easy to find the right interaction mode for what you're doing. Having a case that allows you to put it into various physical permutations makes it easier to get immersed.

The iPad is the ultimate airplane accessory: movies, books, games, and interacting with the outside world on planes with wi-fi. I have now partitioned my travel life into 2 eras: pre-iPad & post-iPad, and you can guess which is better.

As you've probably guessed, this entire entry was researched, organized, and written on the iPad, and it was a pretty good experience, much better than I thought it would be. I can anticipate doing more of this type of writing on the iPad.

The Bad

I have very little to dislike so far. It really does need rudimentary background processing just to allow stuff like Skype + X. The proposed changes coming in the 4th release of iOS should solve most of those problems. Doing real work on the iPad feels a little like being back in the DOS days. I had my notes for this blog entry in a mind map & had to switch back and forth. However, the pain was minor because the applications "start up" so fast (in quotes because that seems like kind of a quaint notion on the iPad: applications don't really have life cycles).

The Ugly

Nothing about the device is ugly. The only ugly thing in the neighborhood are Apple's sometimes overly controlling ways. But you have to realize that the future of applications on these devices fall into 2 categories: curated native applications from the AppStore and wide open, standards-based web applications, delivered through the browser. By maintaining control on the native applications, they remove the need for things like anti-virus software. They want to closely guard those applications all the way down to the look and a feel. I agree that if they allow cross- compiled applications, it dilutes their control. But that control makes a difference.

Before the iPhone, I was a die hard Palm (and Treo) user, which both offered an application development platform. Because there was no curator, 98% of Palm applications were abysmal, to the point that I stopped adding new applications. The Apple AppStore largely fixes that.

Android is going to suffer the same fate if they aren't careful. The interesting difference between the Palm & Android eras is the strength of social networks, especially user ratings. The largely unanswered question: will social networks be enough to all the cream of the Android crop to rise to the top, overcoming the Palm problem.

I won't get in a huff at Apple for controlling and curating native applications as long as they don't try to cripple the browser. As long as I can write whatever application I want using open standards and have it work correctly, I'm OK with the advantages and disadvantages of curated applications.

"I want to live there!"

I have a friend that every time he sees something new and futuristic, he says "I want to live there". Using the iPad feels like tiptoeing in to the future. I definitely want to live there.

I'm convinced that the iPad is the first iteration of the next major computing platform. PC's will become work & power user tools, but everyone will use iPad-like things for many tasks. This is the first incarnation - can you imagine what these things will look like in 5 years?

The iPad does for video what the Sony Walkman did for music. I can easily envision a near future where the family TV is only used on special occasions; the whole family sits around with their fifth generation iPad watching highly personalized content.

I don't think you can really appreciate the impact of the iPad until you've used one a bit. Thomas Watson famously said in 1943 that the world-wide market for computers was about 5 computers. He didn't understand the transformative effect that pervasive personal computing could effect. We're at the threshold of a new era of computing, and it's pretty cool. Ignore it at your peril!


Dan Thiffault said...

Love the post really summarizes a lot of things I've been thinking. Only change I'd make is to say the iPad will do for personal computing what the Sony Walkman did for music. Thanks for keeping the posts coming.

Unknown said...

At the risk of being cast out of my circle of friends and being uninvited from parties... I sold my Mac and went back to PC. My ASUS UL30VT-X1 laptop is the best laptop I've ever used. $800 and I use it for business, coding and browsing your blog. Smaller than a MacBook, higher res, and has better battery life than the iPad. LOL :-) Hope you're keeping well Neal!

Ted said...

I see no reason to defend Apple's exertion of control over the iPad environment as the only possible means of curation on that device. It isn't. Linux distributions like Debian or Ubuntu are excellent examples of curated software repositories. The curation system (apt) is open to other repositories, but by default the only apps made available to users will be those from the official repositories. This is quite useful, as it allows users to choose more experimental versions of some or all applications, or to make their installation decisions based on other factors, like their desktop environment or the type of license used on the software in question.

This same model could very well be applied to iPad app distribution. To say that doing so would prevent Apple from providing a curated set of applications to their users is completely false. Users who did not wish to risk viruses or poorly-written applications would simply have to leave the default settings unchanged.

I suspect that the reason Apple has not done this is that it would provide an easy way for people to circumvent DRM measures, and also to install pirated applications. To say that such a decision is necessary in order to create a curated collection is nonsense.

Steve said...

"The iPad does for video what the Sony Walkman did for music."

I'm sure the screen is slick, but it's also flat... I mean, 2D form-factor. That means A) hunching over it, B) holding it up with your arms, or C) propping it up with something while you lie down. How long can you do A) or B) before you have to meddle around with C)?

And remember... you always vote with your dollar.

Mark Bober said...

Thanks for the review... I would add one "bad" that I hope Apple will improve (and about which I have emailed Steve) and that is file sync. I am a MobileMe user and store my standard everyday documents on my iDisk. The iPhone has an iDisk app but no iWork. The iPad has iWork but no iDisk integration with it. So, this is a problem Apple needs to solve. I assume we will see big things, given the introduction of the iMovie iPhone app. I expect we'll see a lot more in the way of content creation on the iPad, at which point the file syncing will be a lot more important.

I also agree that this is a paradigm shift, particularly in the way that "files" are used. The concept that an app owns its files in a database scheme (ala iTunes) rather than in some sort of file system is a pretty monumental change for which Apple has slowly been preparing us. But again, this is why I want file sync working properly.

Can't wait to see what OS X 10.7 brings us... Maybe the Finder will be gone altogether? Maybe we'll see something a lot more like iOS? I for one can't wait!

Neal Ford said...

For Steve —

That's why i said the case isn't optional. It givers you the angles needed so that you don't have to hold the iPad in awkward angles. I had the iPad for a week before the case arrived; the case made a big difference ion the convenience factor.

Unknown said...

My biggest disappointment is not being able to run Freemind. I use it for all kinds of mind mapping.

scottnelsonsmith said...

My position on Apple is a lot like yours, Neal. In that spirit, I'd like to add the following:

* Out of the box PDF handling is poor, just beautiful rendering from the Safari browser but no navigation. Fixed by downloading GoodReader; now it's fine.

* Specialization in browser to exclude, for example, Flash. This has been discussed in a million places, so I won't harp on it. I understand both sides and don't specifically have a position, but personally it's annoying.

* Finding and matching up video formats is still a little strange.

That being said, I certainly have been settling into my iPad much as you have. I'm very glad I've got it.