Wash down the Apple tablet with a gulp of Kool Aid

I’m not in the least bit excited about the iPad, and it seems I’m not alone. The mood seems to have changed since before the launch, with countless tech journalists previously falling over themselves to declare tablets the next big thing. (Thankfully Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC was more measured, focusing on personal projectors as a more exciting development). The mood since is considerably more downbeat, and I think more realistic.

I may be missing some crucial usage context that reveals the killer characteristics of the iPad, but I’ve tried really hard and still nothing. There are many obvious practical issues with the device:

  • it’s too big for a pocket, but not sufficiently more useful than an iPhone or an HTC Hero.
  • it’s about the same size as a compact laptop, but with less scope for comfortable rapid input.
  • it’s probably too big to cradle comfortably in my hand for prolonged periods, and sitting with one ankle on the other knee is not always practical.

The only scenarios I can conjure up where I could imagine using the device are:

  • showing people my holiday photos.
  • reviewing design proofs without needing to print them out.

Neither of these, or even both, are very compelling at all. TVs are getting good for viewing photos, by including e.g. an SD card slot, and rumours of the death of paper are greatly exagerated.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about the scenarios used to promote the device is the one about the San Francisco to Tokyo flight, watching video all the way without running out of battery. Any airline with planes worth boarding has personal video screens. I don’t want to bring my own. I’d rather use the space to carry a decent pair of noise-canceling headphones, which I’m sure increase my enjoyment of onboard media far more than a little bit of extra screen real estate. The development I want to see is not a new device that I have to prop on the flimsy airline table, hold tight when we hit some turbulence, and stow away when my food arrives, but the capability to connect my own device to the in-built screen via USB or Bluetooth. Even a bare USB port with power but no connectivity would be a start, allowing me to run low-powered devices (that I already own) during long flights.

OK, so the flight reference is just a touchstone for how long the device can run without mains power, but I think it demonstrates a lack of grounding of the device in realistic scenarios.

Any new device has to have two key characteristics these days for me to get excited: interoperability and convergence. The iPad seems to have very little of either. You could argue that it offers some convergence between smartphones and e-readers, but that’s about as exciting as convergence between a smartphone and a wall clock.

I’m left wondering what the iPad is competing against? I’m guessing it’s paper, whether that’s in the form of a book, brochure, newspaper, restaurant menu or whatever. Unfortunately for Apple, paper is pretty well suited to each of these, especially when you introduce bath water, the risk of theft, or just ketchup, into the equation. Perhaps this is the end of electronic picture frames as dedicated device? Probably about time. Maybe the iPad will make an excellent Spotify console for the living room. Who knows? Whatever happens I can’t see this becoming a mass-market product worthy of even a fraction of the hype.

Where I wish that Apple had expended their creative talent was in addressing the power issue. Not in making sure I could watch 10 hours of back to back video, but in enabling me to spend that energy in whatever way I choose, powering whichever device I choose. It drives me crazy that I carry several batteries around, and short of running my phone off my laptop via USB there is no interoperability between these power sources. If Apple could produce a universal power supply that was sleek, sexy, efficient and interoperable, then I would be interested. Sadly this doesn’t seem to be the way.

3 Responses to “Wash down the Apple tablet with a gulp of Kool Aid”

  1. Panlibus » Blog Archive » Talis News for Academic Libraries February 2010

    […] Talis’ Tom Heath isn’t in the least bit excited about the iPad […]

  2. Panlibus » Blog Archive » Talis News for Public Libraries February 2010

    […] had its say on the matter. The Digital Librarian comments on the potential of the iPad, whereas Talis’ own Tom Heath isn’t getting excited by it at all. The Bookseller reports on UK publishers hailing the iBook […]

  3. John S. Erickson, Ph.D.

    Hi Tom!

    Thanks for this analysis; the fundamental problem I have with the iPad — and the iPhone, and the iPod Touch… — is that Apple controls the level of serendipity that can happen with the device. Specifically, Apple’s policy of only allowing blessed applications constrains the emergence of crazy, unexpected usage patterns enabled (as you say) by interoperability and convergence, but also by community participation.

    In my view the device with more potential my well be the HP Slate, as soon as the clever Linux Universe ports some flavor of (e.g. Ubuntu) to it. The iPad is not interesting to me, because innovation is controlled; the Slate is interesting, because I’m confident I’ll soon be able to “sandblast” Windoze from it, put Ubuntu on it, and have my way with it.

    Whether the iPad runs Flash or Air or HTML5 are in my view red herrings; a symptom of the Real(tm) Problem is that I can’t share Python hacks with my daughters on it.

    “But wait,” I hear some say, “the iPhone had profound, unexpected effects on mobile computing!” Yes, it did, but the iPhone was an existence proof; the same thing happened with the introduction of the Mac. Remember the hoops that app developers had to go through to be Mac developers? Remember how expensive it was to be a member of the APDA?

    The Mac succeeded because in its early days it was too disruptive for Apple to screw up. But soon enough, the chaotic, uncontrolled PC/DOS architecture allowed a more open (SW and HW) ecosystem to emerge. Perhaps the best thing that Apple could do is to allow scandalous, unapproved, paradigm-shifting applications to be openly distributed for the iPad.

    Tom, you pose a very interesting question, “what is the iPad really against?” Guy Kawasaki emphasizes how important it is to pick good enemies; by defining your competition, you usually define yourself. Apple I think relies heavily on status; do you know anyone who admits to having a Zune? And I know, early adopters of HP Slates will be confused for iPad owners, and probably won’t mind!

    Sorry for turning this into a mini blog post 😉