30 January 2010

Initial iPad Criticism Will Soon Be Irrelevant

While mainstream media rode the tsunami of anticipation and orchestrated faux-secrecy for the Apple iPad announcement, now tech media is awash with criticisms of what the iPad lacks in functionality. I contend such criticism, largely from techno-geeks, will soon prove to be irrelevant following the product's actual shipment.

During the iPad announcement, Steve Jobs clearly stated that the iPad is positioned to be a new product category between smartphones and notebook computers, and in particular, the iPhone and MacBooks. As a new product category's conceptual starting point, it makes sense, but I believe consumers will embrace the iPad, and its descendants, for reasons other than just something in between.

First, the techno-geek critics are pounding Apple for releasing a product that lacks:

Multi-tasking. The same criticism continues to be made about the iPhone, while the Google Android and Palm WebOS smartphones differentiate themselves by offering multi-tasking. Do consumers really care if their mobile device has multi-tasking? By and large, the answer is no. Booming sales of the iPhone and iPod Touch proves this. The lack of multi-tasking is actually a key feature of simplicity for the iPhone OS. How often have you seen PC users confused by too many overlapping windows hiding what they thought they were just working on? iPad consumers won't need it and won't miss it. Really gotta run two or more serious apps at once? Use your notebook or desktop! It's not like you don't have one.

Flash. Another criticism that continues with the iPhone as well, the lack of Flash compatibility is easy to point to since so many sites use Flash components for video, animations, and games. Yet, there are sound reasons for Apple to choose to avoid Flash. Even on full powered PCs, Flash is slow, buggy, and a memory hog, due to poor programming choices made by Adobe. It's also considered a proprietary format, as is Microsoft's Silverlight, and a burgeoning application development and delivery platform which poses a competitive risk to the iPod/iPhone/iPad + iTunes eco-system. Apple argues it only supports universal web standards, to discourage format fiefdoms (at least those not controlled by Apple) from propogating on the web. Google's YouTube converted all its video content from Flash to the universal H.264/MPEG-4 AVC standard, which Apple's QuickTime on the iPhone and iPad handle just fine. Even Google's Android mobile OS only supports a light version of Flash for now, that is, until Adobe releases its version 10 of Flash for smartphones. During the Steve Jobs demo of the iPad, while surfing through the New York Times site, it was glaringly obvious the boxes of Flash components were not going to load. Personally, I think it was entirely intentional by Jobs to let that idle Flash box just linger on screen for a couple of seconds, to silently say to Adobe and the rest of the tech world, "Flash? I defy you!" The bottom line is, millions of iPhone and iPod Touch users already surf the web just fine without Flash compatibility. A minor nuisance, but hardly a deal breaker in choosing to buy an iPad. Again, if you really gotta see that Flash video or play that Flash game, use your notebook or desktop.

USB. The lack of a USB port is a bit more interesting, in that it's first consistent with how an iPhone or iPod currently lacks one, but is a serious omission if the expectation is to hook up anything from the galaxy of peripherals available for notebooks and desktops. For a system that touts its digital photos functionality, why can't a digital camera plug directly into it? To that question, I can only discern the intent of Apple for the iPad to be just like an iPhone or iPod Touch, to rely on the iTunes sync with a notebook or desktop for access to personal photo libraries. Your camera already plugs into your notebook or desktop, so just keep doing that. But what about plugging a mouse into the iPad? Well, there's no mouse cursor on the iPad screen, which is driven by the multi-touch functionality anyways (more on that later). What about plugging in an external drive? Again, in this sense, the iPad is just like the iPhone/iPod Touch, with its reliance on the iTunes sync.

Changeable battery. Similar to all the past designs of the iPods and iPhone, the lack of a changeable battery is more about keeping the device small and thin, without having to engineer a detachable cover, as well as a smooth and elegant case, without the outline of a cover. There is also something to be said about the simplicity of charging the device during a data sync, rather than worrying about having to buy and swap out expensive Duracells or Energizers, or wait for a rechargeable in a wall plug mounted charger.

Camera. Another interesting omission, similar to the iPod Touch's lack of a camera. I believe the simple explanation is to prevent iPad (and currently booming iPod Touch) sales from eating into sales of the iPhone. If you really need a portable, wireless Internet connected camera from Apple, then the iPhone is your comprehensively feature packed answer, no confusion of what else from Apple can do this. And if you already have an iPhone in your pocket, you really don't need a camera on your iPad, which isn't pocket-portable anyways.

Front facing webcam. On the one hand, I think there are many technical challenges for a workable webcam on the iPad, from how it will keep a stable image while the iPad itself is not sitting on a stable platform, to the power demands on the battery. On the other hand, I think Apple will offer a webcam in a future iPad model. Software will somehow help automatically track and stabilize the user's face image, while gradual improvements with battery technology will hopefully offset the great power demand needed for video capture.

I really think the feature comparisons between the iPad and full fledged computers are unfair (especially the iPad vs Rock humor image) and eventually irrelevant.

Over the years, Steve Jobs has continually pursued his vision of computing technology within a concise form factor of maximum elegance and simplicity. The 2006 Apple Power Mac G4 Cube and even the 1990 NeXTcube were earlier iterations of his vision for power packed computers in elegant casings. The many generations of the iMac have given consumers accessible technology with beautifully designed fixtures on desktops. Apple's mobile computing also evolved, with the MacBook Air representing Apple's thinnest form factor while still looking like a computer.

Along the way, various peripherals, which we all thought were integral parts of our existing systems, have been shed by Apple. The original blue iMac was the first to shed the 3.5 inch floppy disk drive, while tech analysts and geeks howled in disgust, as if their baby pacifier was being taken away for the first time. The MacBook Air shed the onboard optical drive, a hard disk drive, and an Ethernet port, again, to the grumbling of tech analysts and geeks. Even when the iPhone was first introduced, the omission of a clicking keyboard (and, oh yeah, no stylus either) was the obsession of the Blackberry addicted crowd.

And now, the iPad, particularly while it runs the newly revised Apple iWork applications, taking advantage of the iPad's multitouch screen, has essentially set the mouse free. As more productivity applications are created or revised for the iPad, using the screen, microphone, and accelerometer for input, an entire generation of software will be mouse-free. The mouse and the graphical user interface were what first differentiated the original Macintosh. With the iPad, Apple now dismisses the mouse from its duties as a necessary tool for future innovation.

Apple is the only company positioned to make the touchscreen based user interface acceptable to a mass market, as millions of people have already trained themselves to use the iPhone or iPod Touch.

The user interface alone is not what will sell millions of iPads, as easy as it is. Nor does it fulfill the vision Jobs has for consumer technology.

The iPad's thin form factor, without an integrated physical keyboard, essentially puts highly usable and compelling computing functionality in the hands of consumers, without the resemblance, physical footprint, or weight burden of a full fledged computer.

In essence, with the iPad, Steve Jobs and Apple has shed the computer itself.

People frequently use their notebook computers while sitting on the couch and watching TV, or while laying in bed before going to sleep. Both scenarios will certainly be better served by the iPad, with a heavy and bulky computer no longer in the way. Anyone who uses a clipboard, such as the athletic coach, the clinic nurse, the warehouse clerk, will now find the iPad as a far more powerful alternative to paper, and much less heavy than a notebook computer. All those who never got the hang of the Windows user interface, especially the less tech-savvy older generation, will appreciate the enjoyment of photos, videos, emails, and music, without being intimidated by a mouse or anything that resembles a computer box.

As much as the iPhone is not just a cell phone, but a hyper-functional pocket sized device with a computer hidden within, the iPad is the first truly compelling Internet appliance, with its computing technology entirely out of the way. Don't call it a tablet computer. It's its own thing.

When the iPad goes on sale in a couple of months, I fully expect there to be long lines in front of the Apple Stores before the doors open. Since the initial models won't have 3G, there won't be any subscription process needed, so the lines shouldn't persist after the doors open, as when the iPhone 2G and 3G models were rolled out. The announced pricing makes for decent initial accessibility to the mass market.

As more and more software applications are made available exclusively on the iPad, I am confident demand for the iPad will only grow.

The chorus of techno-geek voices criticizing the iPad affirms there has long been a vocal community of anti-Apple netizens who are disgusted with the cult of Steve Jobs. Similar to the vehemence that political conservatives hold towards Al Gore with his warnings of global warming catastrophe, many techno-geeks don't like being told by Steve Jobs what is supposed to be cool and cutting-edge, and they are further disturbed by the legions of ravenous fans that Jobs and Apple have.

I really think the tech critics have it wrong this time. Sure, a few of Apple's previously released products have been marginalized, such as the AppleTV and the Mac Mini. I don't think the iPad will join that club.

This blog entry was inspired by Jason McC. Smith's guest blogger entry, "The Apple iPad, explained to geeks" on The Microsoft Blog for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, on January 29, 2010.