Saturday, January 30, 2010

What Apple's iPad is Good For

Last week, Apple announced their new iPad. Longtime Mac geeks like me were disappointed; the thing's nothing more than an oversized iPod Touch! We were hoping for live video conferencing, but there's no camera. Wild and innovative new "gesturing" capability? Nope. There was a rumor about controlling stuff via fingers sweeping the back of the device, but...nuh-uh. There's no breakthrough tech here, just a great screen, super fast operation (due to a customized processor), and an intimate computing experience. Feh.

But then I thought about it. My mom has always been, and will always be, baffled by the desktop metaphor of modern computers. She just wants to surf web, check email, and play Scrabble, and, to her, all the menus and options and flexibilities of a full computer are a fearsome thicket of woe. She sits with her laptop poised precariously on her knees, craning her neck to stare into the screen as if it were a foreign object. If she could comfortably hold an iPad in her hands, and use its stripped-down operating system to perform the simple tasks she's interested in (iPhone's OS is famously navigable by young and old alike), the experience would be vastly more intimate, and stripped of all the scary potential for failure. No more calling me in a state of flustered agitation because "a message just came up on the screen". The iPad is the perfect for-your-parents solution.

But that's not all. I used to create thick daily packets of stapled print-outs, because, like most people, I hate reading on a computer display. But since I got my iPhone, I can't remember the last time I fired up my printer (I use Instapaper to swiftly aggregate interesting online text for later iPhone reading). That's a huge change, and one no one had anticipated at the iPhone's launch. Yet, while it's better for reading than a computer monitor, the small iPhone screen is still not quite right. But an iPad would be perfect. It would also be the perfect device for most of the web browsing I do at home. I currently do a lot of that browsing - which mostly, after all, entails reading - on my iPhone. The faster and larger iPad would be optimal.

So I've delegated 75% of what I used to do via computer (and computer printer) to my iPhone. When I'm on the run, that's still the right tool for the job. But many tasks I perform on my iPhone would work better on an iPad. And of the remaining tasks I still need my computer for, many may at some point be covered via iPad apps.

The third thing going for the iPad is that the "Cloud" is increasingly where we do our computing, and the power there has been increasing at an impressive clip. Since the early 1990's, computer people have forecasted an era of "dumb terminals" which allow you to run online applications. They wouldn't require much processing, as all computation would be done at the other end. And the iPad makes for a pretty intelligent dumb terminal. While pundits have been saying the iPad will reach fruition once the zillions of iPhone developers produce apps for it, I think that, over the next year or two, this may also come to be seen as an ideal device for cloud computing. And that's something the iPhone can't touch.

So I acknowledge my urge to run away from my computer - even my nicely portable Macbook Pro - whenever I need to read, immerse, or be entertained. A computer plays sound files, for instance, but I don't drag the laptop around with me to listen to music! I ran to iPod for that, and, later, found myself running to iPhone for much of the rest. But the iPad's a superior device to run to. It can better accommodate much of what we currently do, uncomfortably, on our computers. Different people (e.g. me and my mom) have different comfort zones, but we are all overdue for off-loading many tasks we used to deem "computing" but which are now, really, nothing more than lifestyle and entertainment activities.

I may eventually be weaned entirely off my laptop, but not soon. I still feel the need for a "real" computer. I see, in the desktop metaphor - in the menus and file system and options and preferences - lots of juicy power and potential. And I will continue to nurse this preference even as the iPad improves over its next few generations. But that's mostly just because I'm a creature of the last century.

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