Opinion: Apple iPad - I Perceive Ample Defects
Ok, the dust has had time to settle after Apple's announcement last week of their upcoming iPad device. There has been plenty of praise for the new device and even some criticism. Given the title of this entry, it is clear that I'm here to criticize it.
A New Form Factor?
During his presentation Steve Jobs railed against the Netbook form factor and said they were just cheap, slow laptops. While that might have been true for the first generation of Netbooks, the second generation (with 1.6GHz Atom H/T CPUs) have been quite usable. In fact, I wrote this on one. Intel has followed up with an even more capable Atom processor that is just starting to appear in newer Netbook models. It appears more generations of netbooks are coming: those with the newer Atom CPUs, and those with ARM CPUs. One will speed up the Netbook, and the other will reduce its capabilities and make it cheaper.
I suspect the iPad is what it is because Apple decided it couldn't compete on features and price against the Netbook... so they decided to change the game. I think several of the major PC makers wish the Netbook would be declared a fad and just go away. Why, because there isn't a lot of mark-up on Netbooks and the competition is fierce. Apple wanted a device that would be inexpensive to manufacture yet something in a category where they could do what they always do... price it with a large profit margin. Amazon has done quite well with the Kindle and Apple has done quite well with the iPhone / iPod Touch so why not combine the two?
The sad thing is that Apple has basically delivered a Netbook but by chopping off the keyboard (and all of the I/O ports), giving it a touch screen, and crippling it significantly in several ways, they have everyone convinced that it is a new form factor. This is aided by the fact that it is reminiscent of devices from the Star Trek universe. In writing this article, I hope to expose the iPad for what it really is and stay out of Steve Job's reality distortion field.
A Computer for Standing?
Did you ever notice that in Star Trek... when they were carrying around those electronic clipboard type devices... that they were almost always standing / walking? If anything the iPad is a device to use while standing. You HAVE to hold it in at least one hand. That's fine when walking or standing.
What? You want to use it while sitting? No problem, just contort your body and use your legs as a monitor stand. What am I talking about? Here's a frame from Apple's official iPad Demo Video:
It might be hard to tell from the blurry still shot but the person in the picture is using their legs to prop the iPad up. You have now become a monitor stand. But seriously... HOW does one use this device while sitting? Are you supposed to hold it in one hand while you use the other hand? Ok, but how do you type? Why with one hand of course. How satisfying of an experience is that going to be?
Ok, how about putting it in your lap or on a table and typing with two hands on the screen? That will probably work for the typing portion but viewing the display will be very awkward. I guess the hunt-and-peck crowd won't be too disadvantaged by the device, holding it vertically in one hand and typing with the other... but those of us who like to write and actually touch type will not be happy at all.
Apple already has shown a dock with a separate keyboard turning the iPad into a stationary device and with a little thought it is obvious that that will be the only way typing on the iPad will be satisfactory.
What Can It Do?
Apple touts all of the preloaded software as some sort of revolution. You can watch video. You can view pictures. You can surf the web. Blah, blah, blah. Ok, while true is there ANYTHING you can do on the iPad that you can't do on a Netbook or laptop? Other than the auto-rotation of the display when you physically rotate the iPad, and the touch-screen, the iPad does absolutely nothing that you can't do on a Netbook. Period. How long before Netbooks start appearing with touch-screens?
You can be locked in. I guess that is a special feature of the iPad. The iPad is compatible with the iPhone's App Store. That's nice. It appears that that will be the only way you can get software on the device... through an Apple approved channel where they get a cut of every software sale. Really? While that might make some sense for a cell phone how well would this play out if Microsoft came out with a flavor of Windows where the only way to get software for it was through a Microsoft App Store where Microsoft gets a cut of every sale and Microsoft could deny certain apps they didn't approve of? Just contemplate that for a minute.
The Defective By Design folks see the DRM / lock-in as a major injustice against consumers and I agree. I'm glad the DBD PR campaign exists and they are trying to bring this issue (and others) to everyone's attention. Oddly, some former Linux-distro community leaders think the DBD folks should just quit whining and that the Free Software Foundation should expand into some sort of Free Hardware Foundation. Crazy.
Another thing the iPad can do for you is give you a little bit of exercise by making you hold it up most of the time. It'll also help exercise your heart as your blood pressure rises due to the frustration you will have when trying to write with the device without the dock and external keyboard. Hey, maybe they could come out with some sort of "WiiFit" type application.
What Can It Not Do?
No webcam. Really? Even Apple's iPod Nano can record video but the iPad can't? There is no excuse for missing a webcam. Most Netbooks include a webcam.
Almost no ports. Really? While it is true you can get all of your content over the network, what if you want to augment the internal storage with an SDcard or USB thumb drive? Nope.
Apple seems to think that taking away useful hardware features leads to simplification. I completely disagree. Having no hard drive activity nor network activity lights on the iMac doesn't simplify it, it just makes troubleshooting more difficult. How well did the latest iPod Shuffle design work out when they moved the controls from the device itself to the earbud cable? Now you are very limited in what headphones / earbuds you can use with the it. Argh.
The Netbook Is A Failure?
Ok, now let's examine what you can do with a Netbook and what you can't do with a Netbook and then compare it to an iPad. Do I really have to belabor the point? The answers are obvious.
You can type on a Netbook. Some have really small keyboards so typing isn't always a pleasure on every Netbook... but since there are a ton of Netbook models to choose from by a number of manufacturers (except Apple of course), finding one with a keyboard that you can work with isn't impossible. The keyboard on the Acer Aspire One I have is smaller than a full-sized keyboard but I can still type at full speed with almost no frustration.
You can plug in devices. Most Netbooks have a number of ports. Plug in an external display with a greater resolution. Plug in any USB device from the hundreds on the market ranging from storage devices, to optical drives, to a keyboard and/or a mouse. Wifi not available? Plug it into wired networking since most Netbooks include a wired network port.
You can change the battery. While the batteries for laptops and Netbooks are surely overpriced, at least you can buy an extra battery and quickly swap it out if you want. How about the iPad?
You can see it. You can view a Netbook screen easily in your lap or sitting on a table. You can even adjusted the angle of the display. It is obvious that a screen is more easily viewed in a vertical orientation than in a horizontal one.
You can do everything the iPad can do and more. Is there a single application pre-installed on the iPad that you can't find for a Netbook? Nope. Given the fact that you'll have the freedom to get software from anywhere you like... even free / open source applications and operating systems makes the Netbook a truly flexible device.
iPad As An Ebook Reader?
The iPad does offer a little more vertical resolution than some Netbook models (1024x768 vs 1024x600), but again... there are lots of models of Netbooks to choose from... including several with even higher resolutions.
While Apple says their display is brilliant and beautiful, so are those on Netbooks. In fact, I haven't really noticed a Netbook model that doesn't have a fantastic display. A reader pointed out that the iPad has an IPS type LCD which is supposedly a little higher quality that offers better color reduction and a greater viewing angle. The problem here is that Apple is saying the iPad will be great for reading electronic books. How is that exactly? The iPad display is in no way an equivalent to an e-ink type display.
Apple is supposedly known for innovating but why did they not use a screen like that found on the very inexpensive One Laptop Per Child? The OLPC has a monochrome mode where the back light is off and the display is almost indistinguishable from that of a very expensive e-ink display... and perfectly readable in direct sunlight. How about the iPad?
The combo color / e-ink display problem was solved by Mary Lou Jepsen several years ago for the OLPC and has since become available to mainstream consumer devices through her company Pixel Qi.
Don't believe me? Just do a search for "pixel qi" on YouTube and watch a few videos and I'm sure you'll see the difference. I've included one that is from last June.
The Pixel Qi display technology is designed in such a way that it will NOT require retooling of existing LCD manufacturing plants, it DOES use existing LCD materials, and it WILL easily integrate into touch screen displays... and they cost the same as existing Netbook displays... which is significantly less than e-ink only displays. In fact, at least a half-dozen products from multiple manufacturers using the Pixel Qi technology were shown at the recent CES show.
With that evidence it is impossible to conclude anything other than the iPad will be a poor excuse for an ebook reader even though the problem was solved some time ago in a very economical way... and no, I'm not talking about the very expensive and limited e-ink displays found in the Kindle and others.
I actually have a lot of respect for Steve Jobs and Apple. They have come out with some fantastic products but the iPad isn't one of them. The iPad is overpriced and under featured. It in no way creates a new platform and the netbook doesn't suck.
Apple is pretty good at putting style over substance and in most cases the consuming public falls for it. It remains to be seen if the iPad will be a financial success for Apple, it probably will be. One thing is for sure though, the iPad is not a competitive / functional device when compared to either the current crop of Netbooks nor those coming out in the next few months. It does have an Apple logo on it though, and for some, that is enough.