Thoughts on iPad From a Slightly Disappointed Fanboi

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I’ll admit: for the last 3 years or so I’ve become an Apple fanboi. My first computer in 1984 was an Apple II+ clone—a Franklin Ace (unfortunately, Apple was able to use copyright law to get this competition squashed). But after that I was in the PC world, for almost 20 years. Until about 3 years ago. I was tempted to get a MacBook but was leery of the change. Finally my wife got a MacBook and one thing led to another—I now live a blessedly PC free world except for the one remaining PC I still have to use at work—and I have plans for that one too. Now I have iPods, iPhones, iMac, MacBooks. I guess I’m a fanboi, except I don’t pretend that Macs don’t crash—all my computers crash. They are all too complex not to. People who say their computers don’t crash are either lying or don’t really use them. (Linux fans—please don’t pester me. I’m glad the market has diversity and tinkerers like you have something you can tinker with. I have two degrees in electrical and computer engineering but I just want a computer that works—a nice tool I can use. I also prefer automatic transmission cars even though I know how to use a stick shift.)

So naturally I could not resist getting an iPad. I had ordered the 3G version which does not arrive till later this month. But finally the temptation to get one won out so I persuaded my wife to let me get a wifi version for her and my son. After all, I told her, we all read books. One won’t be enough! On the other hand, we won’t need two 3G models! Whoever is traveling for work can take the 3G one, I said. So, I nabbed one Monday morning at a local Apple store.

I’ve developed a variety of impressions and views since having gotten it. They are bit jumbled but here they are. I agree with some of the comments of those praising it, though some of it is over the top. Andy Ihnatko (2) and Walt Mossberg raved about it—Ihnatko calling it “one of the best computers ever”; Mossberg said it was a “game changer.” One of the most balanced reviews was Farhad Manjoo’s You Don’t Need an iPad — But once you try one, you won’t be able to resist. There are critics, too–see, e.g., Cory Doctorow’s Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either). The critics have some good points but many of the criticisms I find silly. Doctorow complains that you won’t be able to trade old comics any more. Well, so what. I get books to read them, not to trade them. The quality and convenience and availability will be so much better in digital form. So the rest is a question of price. If the price is low enough, that compensates for the lack of a secondary market. And if the price is too high—hey, that’s the market (okay, distorted by copyright law, but still—there’s competition).

And many critics point to things it doesn’t have. It has no USB. The battery can’t be removed. No multitasking. Well this is silly, in my view. You don’t buy something for what it can’t do but for what it can. And it can do many cool things, so it will find buyers (as is clear by now). Everyone who sees my iPad oohs and ahhs, wants to touch it, and says they want one.

So what is my view of the iPad after getting one? Well, it is gorgeous and well made. It is fun to use. It is useful. But like Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak, I was hoping I might be able to use it as a laptop replacement. And I think—probably, it can’t be. The basic reason? It has no (real) keyboard.

Look, I used to love my Blackberry. Like HP calculators, they have great buttons and keyboards. I was initially reluctant to get the iPhone because it had no keyboard. When the 3G model came out, I was finally sold. I figured the advantages of the iPhone were worth that one tradeoff. And it is. In fact the touch keyboard has advantages—it can reconfigure for different contexts, for example. And the fact is you can’t do a lot of typing on a Blackberry either. So it’s not a big problem to have a similarly-limited touch keyboard on the iPhone.

But on the iPad the lack of a real keyboard is a much more severe cost. Especially for people, like me, who can touch type proficiently. Yes, the touch interface on the iPad has its advantages. But I can’t type any faster on the larger touch keypboard on the iPad than I can on the iPhone. So it’s good for short notes, but for any real writing or editing, it’s impossible. Yes, you can get the external keyboard. But time and again I find myself putting off some email replies or blog post comments etc. until I get to a real computer with a keyboard.

Now that I have the iPad I feel the lack of a keyboard is a huge cost. You can make up for it somewhat but it is a big limitation. I don’t think that will stop the appeal of these devices—they have their niche uses—but it could limit the broader use of them as laptop replacements. Which is not a huge problem, but there it is.

I often read in the morning when I wake up, and at night, in bed, on my MacBook Air. I was trying this with the iPad. It is very good for most of this—but not for all. Someone sent me an email this morning with a change to make on a file on a website. On my Air I would have opened Word, changed the relevant file, and uploaded the file using FileZilla to a website via FTP. I could do none of this easily on the iPad. I had to table it until later. Someone else sent me some graphic files to put on a website directory. On my Air I would have downloaded the attached file, unzipped it, opened it, opened FileZilla, and so on. Again, I had to table it.

Other thoughts:

  • The powered belkin USB hub I use by my iMac does not power the iPad. Some people are whining about this. I don’t think this is a big deal. Most new computers require their own power supply. Not a biggie.
  • There are some initial glitches and bugs—scrolling problems in gmail online, etc. But these should improve quickly over time.
  • Some people are complaining that some apps are—gosh!—$10, like Pages and Scrabble. It seems high compared to $1.99 for many iPhone apps, but compared to typical software prices it’s perfectly reasonable.
  • It’s incredibly fast—when you are browsing and click the button to go to another web page, the one you have open just flies closed in like a millisecond. It’s breathtaking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen computers respond like this. They did that part right.
  • The battery life is incredible. It’s incredibly liberating. Especially for those of used to dealing with the very limited batteries in laptops (especially the stunted Air). It’s not weeks like the Kindle—it’s only 10 or so hours—but then this does so much more than the Kindle. You can carry it around all day and plug it back in at night. It’s better than laptops (and smartphones) in this respect. I don’t think people care about being able to replace a battery like this.
  • People whine that there is no multitasking. Well, there is limited multitasking. But the limits on multitasking help it achieve its wonderful battery life, and also its amazing iPhone-like stability. Even these things have glitches and crash, but compared to modern bloated operating systems—Windows, Mac OS, even Linux—the iPhone/iPad OS is bulletproof.
  • Kindle and iBooks are both great book readers. Weird mismatched advantages/disadvantages: iBooks has in-app shopping, and cool page turning, and a dictionary, and is epub compatible—but it has no iPhone counterpart! (I’m sure Apple will remedy this soon.); Kindle has Mac, PC, Kindle device, and iPhone counterparts, and whispersync—but no epub, no dictionary, and no in-app shopping (but opening up Safari to buy a book is no big deal at all). Anyway, just get them both. Both are free.
  • Various apps for media are great—movies, iTunes, photos, Netflix, USA Today, WSJ, Pandora, Sirius. There’s a cool picture frame app that lets you turn it into a digital picture frame display slideshow. The origami transition is fun.
  • There is no heat at all coming from the device—cool as a cucumber. A nice surprise given that I could fry bacon on the back of my MacBook Air.
  • The Apple case is simple, slim, elegant, ingenious. Protects it, serves as a stand (horizontal, vertical, and elevate for typing)—while adding almost no bulk and weight.

One problem is I have gotten used to my MacBook Air over the last couple years. That computer is extremely light and small, very portable, and has a SSD drive so that it’s quiet, fast, and durable. The Air has problems: the battery life sucks, and it gets way too hot and then very sluggish. I have a feeling the next Air might improve all this. An improved Air may be close to being my perfect computer. If you could add a touch screen, and perhaps make the screen so that it could swivel around so you could use it in tablet mode. Should it be Mac OS or iPhone/iPad OS? I’m not sure. Not sure it matters, once apps for iPad mature. If you can get enough functionality from among the hundreds of thousands of sophisticated apps coming, iPad OS may be better—slimmer, faster, more stable, less battery juice used.

I am not sure if multitasking is really necessary on the iPad; not sure it would address the previous deficiencies as a laptop replacement. Even if I have a nice keyboard attached to it, I simply must have the ability to alt-Tab (or Command-Tab) and easily cut and paste between apps to get real work done. Maybe this doesn’t require real multi-tasking; maybe it just means that each app remembers its state and can open and close fast enough to simulate the multitasking effect, because the screen is hardly big enough for multiple windows to be displayed together anyhow. To do real work I need a keyboard, I need to flip back and forth between apps, easily cut and paste, and also, I need to be able to easily handle files—to save, download, attach them. In Mail on the iPad I could not even see how to attach a photo from the photo library. They will probably fix this, since there is obviously a way to do it—you go to Photos and send one as an email. I’m sure this will come over time.

As the iPad improves, it will become more and more of a contender to replace most or all of a laptop’s real functions. In the meantime it’s still a useful device. Yes, now you have a third or fourth device: a smart phone, laptop, desktop (maybe—they are fading away), and, between the first two, an iPad. So what. You sometimes carry a book or a kindle. Why not an iPad? My iPad fits inside the little external zipper pocket of my briefcase without adding any noticeable weight or bulk, with the laptop nestled inside. Look, I was on the verge of buying a Kindle, but just hated the idea of monochrome; for heaven’s sake—my last monochrome computer was the Franklin Ace in 1984 (“Green or amber, what’s your pleasure, sir?”). And the sluggish screen…lack of touch. Ugh. And no light! I know people who clip itty bitty book lights onto their Kindle. Ridiculous. A battery powered book reading device without a built in light? No way.

I prefer a color LED screen. People say Kindles are easy on the eyes; they don’t cause eye strain. What? I don’t get eye strain from computers. I don’t like having to turn on a light or clip on a light to the Kindle to read in a dimly lit room, I’ll tell you that. I’ve been reading books for months now on the Kindle app on my iPhone. It’s a bit small but it’s fine. And it’s got a built in light. So for book reading alone the iPad is almost worth it—though a bit pricey at $500. So it’s two or three times as expensive as a Kindle…but it does so much more. Great games. Thousands and thousands of apps. Movies. iTunes store. Music (the speakers are surprisingly good on it). Photos. Calendar. Address book. Apps, apps, apps. I am just starting to see how I’ll use this…I think I’ll use it often for family gaming, for reading books, around the house, when going to lunch. If I go on vacation or a business trip, I’ll probably take my laptop along still, unless I’m sure I have nothing complicated to do, and I’ll also take the iPad along. On the plane I’ll leave the laptop alone. I’ll keep the iPad out. I’ll probably leave the MacBook in the hotel, and take the iPad; it’s so small and book-like that it’s so easy to do.

Scrabble iPadAnother note: I am not a gamer (I had to go cold turkey on video and computer games in law school, as I was getting addicted to Zork and Robotron), but this thing is great for games. You know, I hear a lot of the old fogie and crusty types whining about how people are less social nowadays with being immersed in their computers. Nonsense. They are more social than ever. Just in different ways. They are writing more than ever—emails, blogs, etc. On vacation recently the kids with us (and even the grownups) sometimes used our iPod touches/iphones to play monopoly and scrabble and chess with each other over wifi. The new iPad has a great Scrabble app (only $10) that puts the whole board in front of you…and each player can use an iPod Touch or an iPhone as his private tile tray, networked via bluetooth with the iPad…you just flick your tiles up off the iPod touch and they appear on the iPad screen where you can play them. This may seem trivial but it is whimsical, fun, and creative. And what’s wrong with a dad playing Scrabble with his 6 year old on an iPad? I think it’s cool for a kid to know what bluetooth and wifi are. And this is just the beginning—that app was released the day the iPad was released. Who knows what else is in store for us with all the thousands of apps in development?

So…this thing is probably not a laptop replacement for most people. Yet. But it’s gorgeous and fun. It’s a winner. It’s great to see capitalism produce such great advances in technology.

2:34 pm on April 6, 2010