Thursday, January 28, 2010

Initial thoughts about the Apple iPad

The hype storm is over, the iPad has been introduced. In a nutshell, you can say it was underwhelming. We didn't see anything that we haven't seen before. Is the iPad as "magical" as they claim it to be? The gut reaction is no, but it may be more than you think.

We can safely say that the iPhone stole the iPad thunder. The iPhone was the introduction of a GUI that was designed for touch-screen, and the iPad merely carried this idea over to a bigger device. If the iPhone had not existed before, the iPad would have had the same revolutionary first-impressions that the iPhone had. But there is another key ingredient to the whole concept of the iPad.

For decades, desktop computers have had an interface that is designed for keyboards and mice. There are files and folders, and a pointing cursor that moves around the screen. You can have layers of windows running any number of processes. This is all fine and dandy when you have ample screen real-estate and processing power.

Netbooks and PC tablets have not changed this concept one bit. The GUI is still based on keyboard-mouse entry. There have been attempts to marry the touch-screen idea to this GUI, but with limited success.

Smartphones (before the iPhone) still tried to carry the same concept to the phones. Files, folders, windows, etc. The screen got so small they had to use a stylus to keep it functional. It was to say the least, difficult to use.

The iPhone changed all of that. The notion of files and folders was thrown out. Visible layers of windows were also thrown out. Instead, a whole new GUI was designed with the fingers in mind. A single window is presented at any one time, with instinctive visual cues as you slid between them. The iPhone made it easy for anyone to pick up and use the phone, they "just got it."

Now bring in the iPad. What the iPad accomplishes is mobile desktop power coupled with the iPhone touch-screen interface. Now that we have more screen real-estate we can do a few more things, such as split-pane views and fancier menus. But for the most part, the concepts are the same. Everything is designed with the fingers in mind. No stylus, no mouse or keyboard necessary. That makes specific tasks (email, web, video, etc.) quick and easy, on a device smaller than most netbooks.

So what does that mean? I think this ushers in a new era of how we think about computing. There will always be a place for keyboard-mouse computing for more complicated tasks (ie. design/illustration, video editing, desktop publishing.) But for the everyday use and mobility, this is a big step toward a new way of thinking. My dad for instance, has never used a computer. He is just not interested in learning it all. However, I think he could pick up an iPad and "get it" very quickly. No files/folders/styles/keyboard/mice things to deal with. Just intuitive interactive elements that do what you expect when you touch them.

You recall the funny tech-support stories about people trying to use the mouse as a foot pedal, or tapping the mouse against the screen trying to "click" on something. You laugh, but maybe this was a big clue into computing intuition, and how it should have worked in the first place. Now that we have the technology to do it, the iPad is simply leading the way.

Of course, the first version of any device is always going to have shortcomings. It just takes time for things to work themselves out. I have no clue why Apple skipped out on a camera, but you can bet that iPad 2 will have one. You can also bet that iPhone OS 4.0 will have multitasking. These things just come with time.

The importance of the iPad is an intuitive finger-controlled interface married to a mobile device with the power/size of a desktop, without the typical complexities of desktop computing as we know it.

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