Monday, April 5, 2010

The iPad

I generally find Fareed Manjoo's take on gadgets and technology for Slate to be too breathless and fanboi-ish to be of much use other than mockery... but since his review of the iPad confirms my preconceived notions in a succinct and literate fashion, I now anoint him a Very Wise Man Whose Opinion Should Be Respected.

First, the reason I want a tablet in the semi-near future:
So, why would you pay at least $500 for a machine that merely replicates your other gadgets' functions? Because the iPad is the best media-consumption device ever made. Or, to put it another way, there is no better machine to use on the couch, the bed, or in the bathroom. Not long ago we had other ways to occupy ourselves in these places. But as TV, movies, books, newspapers, and magazines migrated to computer screens, our machines began to infiltrate every part of our lives. Yet neither the laptop nor the phone is especially well-suited for use while lying down or otherwise slumping around. The laptop is too bulky and the phone is too small. The iPad bridges this gap—its size, shape, and interface make it the perfect machine for your most intimate moments of leisure.
I am an avowed laptop h8ter, and have already made my interest in a tablet pretty clear... but I thought this laid out the argument fairly well. My home entertainment centers around a PC, from games to movies to Hulu/Netflix television to internet surfing, and a desktop I build myself is the only cost effective way to get the performance to do all those things well (OK, fine, it's really only the games that need cutting edge performance, but still). So I already internet surf on the couch, and already consider sitting at a desk in an office chair as "doing work" and as a thoroughly uncomfortable way to spend leisure time... and then the smartphone went and showed how much better it is to surf lying down. That sounds like a joke... I mean who cares, right? But what it does is unify how you consume information for entertainment... most people don't read a novel sitting at a desk, after all... so why The New York Times or your favorite blogs? The thing is, that smartphones are really bad at surfing... they're just better than the alternative... which is... not surfing at all. My Droid does an exemplary job of displaying RSS feeds, giving me mobile access to my email, and the ability to search for things on the fly... but even "mobile" optimized websites are a chore to navigate... I really only do it when I'm forced to. So I certainly see the value of a roughly page sized reader that can surf and play movies and the like. It's obviously not something I need, but it's a toy that I don't think would sit gathering dust.

That said, he also lays out why the tablet I eventually get probably won't be an iPad:
But this simplicity comes at the cost of flexibility. There are 1,000 things you can't do on the iPad. I wanted to add a "bookmarklet" to its Web browser—it wouldn't let me. I wanted to increase the browser's text size, but that option isn't available. I wanted to look at one window as a guide for something I was writing in another window, but I couldn't. In order to keep things simple, the iPad runs all apps in full-screen view, which means that you can't look at two windows at the same time. The iPad doesn't offer multitasking on third-party applications, either, so you can't run an IM program in the background as you can on your desktop. Worse, the iPad doesn't have a great way to notify you of processes occurring outside your main app. On my PC, I get a little pop-up bar showing me the sender and subject line of every incoming e-mail message. That would be very useful on the iPad, but there's no way to add it.

These aren't bugs; they're deliberate limitations that are inspired by the iPad's design philosophy. In many cases these constraints make sense, but for some users in some situations, they can be extremely frustrating. Choire Sicha says that the iPad spurns creative people, but it seems more appropriate to say that it resists "power users," people who like to customize their machines to do things better, faster, and more productively. The iPad resists customization; there is only one way to do most things on this device—Apple's way.
There are a lot of things that look really cool about the iPad... I like the looks of that Marvel app to get back into casually reading comic books for example... but I don't think Apple took anybody by surprise with this one, as tablets have been on the way for a while, and thus I don't really fear an iPod like situation where being an Apple apostate has significant cost. It should be more like the smartphone market were, while Apple may (or may not) have the best device, they don't have market share so large that competitors are completely irrelevant and your only option is to capitulate or be "that guy" who is always talking about how draconian Apple's DRM is (it really is!).

And even if the iPad does to casual computing what the iPod did to mp3 players, there is really no reason to buy one right now when you just know they're releasing one with a camera or whatever in 6 months with a huge price cut for the original.