i can’t have a tablet for $500 (yet).

So the iPad is a large-format iPod Touch when people thought Apple would be entering the tablet market the same way everyone else has entered that market: re-working an operating system to a touch/large-format interface. People were expecting Mac OS X on a touch screen. Instead, Apple decided to expand the featureset of the mobile environment used in the iPhone and iPod Touch devices. Even more device-centric than Mac OS X, the mobile environment is geared toward getting the best bang out of mobile-sized processors rather than mediocrity. This is always Apple’s approach, so why are we surprised by a product that does things in a different way? Yet controversy abounds and the technorati is sadface.

The iPad is not a tablet or a netbook. A tablet is a light-weight laptop with a touch screen. A netbook is a low-powered, often “slow laptop”. (Hint to Apple: if you turned the MacBook Air into a tablet, you’d beat the tablet and netbook markets in one stroke.) And while I think Apple would have been smart to not call the iPad anything like a tablet, Steve Jobs did carefully explain in his keynote that Apple wanted to revolutionize a new category of devices. The iPad is in the “slate” category. The Amazon.com Kindle and the Barnes & Noble nook were the first notably successful entries in the slate market. The iPad should be judged on how it can take the handheld touch screen “viewer” (or slate) to the next level. So hear me now: stop comparing the iPad to a tablet computer or a netbook, because you’re comparing Apples to oranges (pun intended).

Self-centered Design

Well, the rumor mill certainly helped frame our expectations. But remember, Apple designers aren’t concerned with our expectations. They don’t do user testing. They don’t think about the faceless “us” when designing. They design for themselves, the only people whose opinions they can really know. Until we develop telepathy, this approach to design can be pretty powerful. And risky. So here we see the risk in self-centered innovation: you are not going to meet other people’s expectations, and likely not meet them in a big way.

But that’s not what makes Apple tic. I know that Apple is doing the right thing when people describe the experience of using their products not as “it does everything I want it to do”, but rather that when they pick it up and start using it–to do the stuff it was designed to do–”it just works”. If I pick up an iPad and I don’t have that experience, then I’ll call Apple out on that. But I don’t think this is the case from what I’ve seen so far.

The touch screen revolution crystallized this intuitive experience for me. The first time I got my fingers on an iPhone, I didn’t read user manuals, I didn’t watch video tutorials. I just started trying to make it do stuff. I downloaded enough apps from the app store to fill up my home screen. No one told me I could organize my apps on multiple screens. It just made sense for me to flick my fingers in a gesture that meant “slide this thing out of the way”, and I got to the thing underneath (a new, blank screen). Then, I wondered how I could move my apps around. When I pressed and held my finger on an app, it started dancing around, as if saying “Ok, I’m ready to be moved!” I knew exactly what to do next to get my apps onto their new screen. When that kind of symbiosis between user and interface happens–when I try something and it just works–it is so satisfying that I wonder why everyone doesn’t design stuff like this. I had no conscious expectation, it was all unconscious intuition.

I think we should judge the iPad not on our conscious expectations, but on whether or not it is a useful device with a great experience. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on the initial criticisms of this device.

No multi-tasking.

The mobile environment on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad can only run one app at a time. On Mac OS X, I can leave many apps open and doing things in the background while I flick back and forth and complete other tasks while tasks that take a long time complete. But multi-tasking isn’t needed all the time. There are certain things that by their very nature are not useful when running in the background. Those are the tasks that these mobile devices designed by Apple are meant to target.

There’s no need to keep my email app running when I’m not using it. It isn’t going to do anything unless I’m actively interacting with it. The same goes for a web browser. Am I sad that the interwebs can’t be doing fun stuff in the background without me? Not really. Unless I am actively browsing web pages, there’s absolutely no reason to leave the browser running. If I’m watching a video, I certainly don’t want it to continue to run while I go check my email. I’d miss the video, so I always pause it. Yes, I could run it in a tiny window on my laptop to the right of my email window, and flick my eyes back and forth. But with screen sizes in the mobile/handheld market, that kind of experience would be disappointing.

On a regular computer, yes, it seems more efficient to leave all of your apps running so you don’t have to wait for them to start up each time you want to use them. But notice how the makers of these new smart/mobile devices have made each thing start up immediately without delay. They did that to remove the one reason why people leave tasks running that do not require multi-tasking.

If you examine the list of tasks that Apple targeted with the iPad, you’ll see that all of them fail to require a multi-tasking environment.

No Flash support

HTML5 native video support is going to make this moot for viewing videos on the web, and Flash graphical objects (e.g., games) are either A) used in places that they shouldn’t be (navigation), or B) not well-suited to a touch-based interface since they often rely on the mouse “hover” coordinates, which do not exist for a touch screen (it can only react if you have made contact with the screen). Give me the screen that I don’t have to touch to interact with, and we’ll talk.

No phone or camera

If I wanted a phone that big, I would have stuck with my mom’s bagphone. And there’s no way I’d be making all of my calls on speakerphone, or holding an iPad up to my ear. So the obvious choice is a Bluetooth headset and VoIP apps like Skype. However, if Apple’s relationship with AT&T prevents them from letting me use VoIP telephony on the iPad, I will be ticked off.

I’ll admit at first glance the lack of a camera is astounding. But not because I want to take pictures with something that big. I love the idea of me holding this thing in my hand and video conferencing with someone over the internet. However, its size and weight doesn’t seem like it would be a very steady video feed–what with my shaky hands–so perhaps I am not that surprised at the lack of a camera. But lo! the docking station turns this into a steady screen. The iPad seems like it could have been the coolest video conferencing appliance ever made. I mean, I’m sitting there looking at it, it’s looking at me. But I’m thinking Apple couldn’t hit their $499 target with a video camera, not with a first-gen product. I hope to see the addition of a video camera on the next version of the iPad.

Will I buy one?

I don’t know yet. I’m a pretty heavy computer user, so my “sweet spot” is likely going to remain in the laptop world. But the moment that Apple gives me a version of their MacBook where the screen rotates around and folds down backwards (with full touch-screen capability), you’d better believe I’d buy that tablet.

If I were a business person who traveled a lot, or someone who only used the internet for email and browsing, or a professional musician/photographer/videographer who wanted to review/organize their work on location, then I expect the iPad to be the absolute best product for me. Since I’m not one of those, I’m not going to be a first-in-line buyer for this. However, the moment I find myself with enough spare money to finally jump into the eBook community, I would definitely go for an iPad over a Kindle or nook because I feel like I’d be getting so much more than an eBook reader. It would be the best place to spend my dollars. And who knows what kind of new features and experiences app developers are going to discover in this new medium?

All that said, even I have to admit the latest Hitler reacts to…” video is pretty damn hilarious.

6 replies on “i can’t have a tablet for $500 (yet).”

  1. I just have to be a whiner about Flash. We don’t have home service at the moment, so the iPhone is my link to the web (and my work PC, but that’s another story). The lack of Flash isn’t game-breaking the phone, but it is an absence that is very noticed. That added together with the emotional tumult that I get sucked into on the blogs about Adobe v. Apple just makes me pukey. Now that they are becoming so much more powerful in the market, Apple’s closed system bothers me much more than before. Mostly because as they become stronger, they gain the ability to force developers and content distributors to bend to their *proprietary* will, further marginalizing potential innovations from other manufacturers.

    I kept asking myself why I wasn’t really that hyped about the upcoming tablet announcement, and I’m still asking. Maybe I’m just being short-sighted, but it seems so ultra-niche compared to the ubiquity and utility of the iPhone.

    I have no idea why I just put all this crap on you blog.

  2. Also: I’ve gotten used to life without multitasking on the iPhone, but damn the man for me having to reload the same webpage every time I switch to another application.

  3. I think the genie is out of the bottle in that sense, though. Annoying advertising and lousy design are unpleasant side effect of our culture. My personal opinion is that Flash is just the current conduit. Whatever standards-based solution that comes along will have the same capacity for abuse.

    tl:dr – Shitty Youtube videos in h264 are still shitty youtube videos.

  4. “Many (if not most) current Flash games, menus, and even video players require a visible mouse pointer. They are coded to rely on the difference between hovering over something (mouseover) vs. actually clicking. This distinction is not rare. It’s pervasive, fundamental to interactive design, and vital to the basic use of Flash content. New Flash content designed just for touchscreens can be done, but people want existing Flash sites to work. All of them—not just some here and there—and in a usable manner. That’s impossible no matter what.

  5. Reading that article really drove home that point. I had just thought of it in terms of games and stupid visual tricks that work off the distance between and object and the cursor (and therefore discounted it). Expandable menus and the like escaped my notice, even though they’re much more relevant. Pretty much a game-breaker. HOWEVER, I’m still and angsty terd about ol’ Steve’s flapping maw. I’m pretty sure that my next machine will be a Macbook Pro or iMac, but I still think he’s a terd!

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