When Steve Jobs revealed Apple’s latest product, the iPad, on Jan 27, no one was surprised. For months, online forums, blogs, newspapers, and magazines had discussed rumors of Apple designing a tablet device; so frequently, in fact, that it soon only became a matter of when they would announce it. Most people expected that the device would be as revolutionary as the iPod was when it was released in 2001, or as innovative as the iPhone was when Steve Jobs pulled it out of his pocket in January 2007. Just as the iPod changed the music business forever and the iPhone redefined the premium phone, so too would Apple’s tablet computer transform everything.
However, most people did not bother to define what exactly Apple’s tablet would transform. Would it run a reduced version of Mac OS X and blow all other touch screen computers out of the water? Would it be primarily an eBook, newspaper, and magazine reader, simultaneously saving the publishing industry and trouncing Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader? Would it be just a gaming and media device, completely outclassing Sony and Nintendo’s handheld gaming systems?
However, once the iPad was announced, many Apple devotees, blinded by their unrealistic expectations, complained that it wasn’t innovative, but just a big iPod touch. What they didn’t realize was that the iPad was innovative precisely because it wasn’t designed for them to begin with.
Apple’s reasoning for creating the iPad is rooted in hardware and software platform it began to develop in 1989. The Newton OS was an operating system that served as the software platform for Apple’s tablet computer, called the MessagePad. The whole Newton project was an attempt to revolutionize personal computing, serving as the basis for a whole line of mobile products targeted primarily at businesses.
The three major programs Newton Devices were bundled with closely resemble essential application in current mac products: Notes (named exactly the same today), Names (a contacts program that is similar to the iPhone’s Address Book program), and Dates (a calendar program that is the precursor for the iPhone’s program calendar).
After a decade-long hiatus from Apple, Jobs returned as CEO in the late 90s, instilling a bold new vision into the company. Unfortunately for the Newton, the devices it powered were not part of the vision, since Jobs permanently shut down further development of the stagnating Newton project. However, Jobs never relinquished the dream of developing simple computing device on his own terms, resulting first in the release of the iPhone, and now the iPad.
Just as with the Newton devices 20 years ago, Apple is attempting once again to revolutionize personal computing. This time around, Apple’s target audience are not those willing to endure sleet, rain, and snow to get their hands on the latest product update, but those who find using computers a daunting enough task to begin with.
Apple has been wise to recognize that a significant portion of the population is far from tech savvy. As college students, we may think that everyone knows how to surf the web, but many people, for example, are still confused about the difference between a search field and a browser’s address bar. Instead of just striving to create the fastest, smallest technology, Apple is now trying to create products that are as user friendly as possible.
How did Apple formulate their modern vision of the idiot-proof computer? The iPhone can be seen as the first step on this process towards a new standard for personal computing. The operating system on the iPad is just a slightly modified version of that which is used on the iPhone. Unlike other tablet computers currently on the market, which run software based on a point-and-click interface (which is inconvenient for a device that uses a touchscreen as opposed to a mouse), the iPad will be intuitive and responsive since its operating system was built from the ground up to be manipulated with fingers.
By using the iPhone OS in the iPad, Apple has also avoided the major pitfalls faced companies trying to release new operating systems: lack of a significant library of software, and the distinct possibility that consumers will not take well to the new system. Not only will all current and future iPhone apps work on the iPad, guaranteeing strong software support the minute it launches, but Apple already knows that, for the most part, consumers have responded well to the iPhone’s touch interface. In fact, the iPhone sold well even before it allowed third party application development, partially because of Apple’s good reputation and partially because the iPhone OS worked so well that consumers were willing to buy it even without strong software support.
iPhone applications can be blown up to double their pixel size to better fit the iPad’s 10 inch screen. While this is a decent interim solution, text-heavy programs will probably be blurry after being stretched to double their size. That is why Apple released a kit to developers just as they announced the iPad: now they can redesign current programs for the iPad and create new ones meant just for the new device.
In addition, Apple has designed the iPad’s software so that the user does not have to deal with saving files somewhere in a file hierarchy. For the iWork applications that Apple has designed for the iPad, which include a word processor (Pages), presentation software (Keynote), and a spreadsheet program (Numbers), any documents created are saved within the apps themselves.
Rounding out its suite of online media stores, Apple has created a new online bookstore and their own iBook format. Thus, Apple is not only advertising the iPad as a simplistic computing experience, but also as a more feature-rich alternative to the Kindle—the iPad has applications and extensive media support, features that the Kindle currently lacks.
However, Apple has not yet completed the perfect simplistic computing system. The current iteration of the iPad does not allow for multitasking, which means two apps cannot be open at the same time unless you’re using Apple’s own applications, which are Mail, iTunes, Calendar, the iWork apps, and perhaps a couple of others. That means if you’re talking to someone in a chat program, you can’t keep that open while you look at a webpage. This also means that you can’t type up a document while you listen to a track on the Pandora app. While multitasking won’t necessarily matter to people who want a barebones computer that just works, it is still a crucial oversight that hamper the iPad’s productivity.
In addition, there is no Flash on the iPad, which means many websites, such as youtube, that use Flash content cannot be rendered on the iPhone. Apple did not include Flash on the iPad (and the iPhone, by the way) for a variety of reasons that could warrant a whole new article entirely. In short though, Flash is one of the leading causes of crashes on Apple’s computers, and since the iPhone OS is based on Mac OS X flash would presumably cause the iPhone and the iPad to crash as well. Flash also uses a lot of system resources, which would result in lower battery lives for the iPhone and iPad. Nevertheless, the lack of Flash certainly weakens Apple’s claim that the iPad provides the best web experience of any device, since the Internet is still largely dominated by sites dependent on Flash.
However, even if the iPad was designed with non-tech savvy consumers in mind, it could still be an ideal product for students. But how do students justify purchasing a less powerful, less feature-rich device that will largely duplicate the functions of laptops that many students already own? Students rely on technology to be more productive, and so any technology either must be extremely efficient or perfectly serve all of their diverse needs.
While every student works differently, let’s assume that there are three major functions that the iPad must excel at if it is to be ideal for student use: book reading, note-taking, and paper and project creation. The iPad comes very close to achieving this criteria, but its limitations prevent it from becoming an ideal device for student use.
Even though the iPad could prove to be an excellent electronic book reader, it is currently unclear how many books the iPad will have in its book store, and whether it will carry all of the textbooks a student would need. Therefore, the iPad may have limited value for students if the availability of their required books is limited. There is even debate over whether the iPad would provide a pleasurable reading experience: many people believe that the Kindle’s e-ink technology is better suited for longer reading times than the iPad’s backlit screen.
As mentioned earlier, the iPad will be able to use reputable iPhone notebook programs, and therefore be quite effective at note-taking from a software standpoint. However, many students may not be comfortable with the iPad’s touchscreen keyboard, and so may type less effectively and accurately. In addition, the iPad’s current lack of multitasking capability will require a student to awkwardly transition from the iPad’s book reader to a note taking program, which could result in reduced productivity.
The iPad’s iWork suite of programs will allow students to write papers and create slideshow presentations, the iPad’s iWork suite will cover these tasks. However, just like with note-taking, a laptop is more effective for these tasks than an iPad due to the iPad’s lack of a physical keyboard. Also, the iPad cannot plug into a printer directly since it has no USB ports, so the only way to print documents from the device would be to email them to another computer or print using a wireless printer.
Given its relative weakness in most of these criteria, as well all of the iPad’s limitations if used as a primary computing device, a laptop is currently a better option for students. However, as the iPad gains features in the future, such as the ability to multitask, it will begin to become an extremely viable productivity platform and media device. What is important to remember is that, just like the Newton and iPhone were stepping stones on Apple’s path towards creating the iPad, so too is the iPad merely one evolutionary step on a journey that will likely revolutionize the way consumers interact with computers.