The iPad Is Not Revolutionary

Near the end of yesterday’s unveiling of the iPad (that’s really the name, cue middle school jokes), Steve Jobs presented this slide (Gizmodo):

Our most advanced technology in a magical & revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.

While I cannot weigh in on the magical properties of the iPad until it flies from Hogwarts on its broomstick into the hands of perspirating Apple fanboys the world over (narrowly missing its chance at catching the Golden Snitch), I believe we have enough information to contest how revolutionary it actually is.

Princeton’s WordNet defines revolutionary as “markedly new or introducing radical change.” How so?

The device uses an improved version of the iPhone OS, and its apps are written using the same SDK. Applications are accessed via a paginated grid of icons (as on the iPhone). Like the iPhone, only one application may run at a time with occasional, Apple-sanctioned exceptions (such as iTunes playback).

It connects to the web via WiFi or, if you pay for a premium model and a monthly subscription, a 3G connection (just like the iPhone or Kindle, minus the subscription fee in the latter case).

The hardware is essentially a cross between a first-generation iPhone and the top half of a unibody MacBook. The screen is capacitive multitouch, with an onscreen keyboard larger than that of the iPhone or Windows 7. The display size is 10 inches (about the size of an average netbook). The display resolution is 1024 by 768 pixels, the same as Lenovo’s Thinkpad X61 Tablet (released in 2007). It is roughly the same thickness as the MacBook Air.

The iPad introduces an iBooks store that sells basically the same catalog as Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer for their respective e-readers, though slightly more expensive. The books are downloaded in ePub format, the standard for most reading devices with the exception of the Kindle.

The cheapest iPad model starts at $499, a few hundred dollars more expensive than a typical netbook. The most capable model is priced at $829, a couple hundred dollars more than a multitouch laptop.

What’s “markedly new?”

I anticipate many will respond “the product category,” but that’s a flimsy explanation at best. The iPad is basically a giant iPod Touch with optional 3G, no phone service, no camera and no additional storage. Apple continually questions the legitimacy of the netbook category, but they’re in a glass house on this one. If “giant iPod Touch with optional 3G” is a product category, then so is “cheap, tiny laptop” (also with optional 3G).

Even newly-introduced features like iBooks barely surpass the competition, largely through the use of superfluous interface niceties like page turns and three-dimensional bookshelves.

In nearly every respect, the iPad is a strictly evolutionary product. Cool-looking, probably fun to use, but not revolutionary in any sense.

What could have been

Like many, I had high hopes for the iPad. I was enamored with the possibility of the additional screen real estate coupled with multitouch and a 3G connection.

SpiderGoofI thought for sure that iBooks would include support for periodicals. As nice as the iPad’s screen looks, what a waste for it to render page after page of black-and-white text! I want to flip through WIRED or Communication Arts on this thing. Steve Jobs is Disney’s largest shareholder, which just bought Marvel Comics for crying out loud! Support for the magazines and comics I love without having to wastefully plop them into the recycle bin each month would have made this a no-question purchase for me.

Video on the iPhone is impractical due to a dearth of storage space, with tiny screens banishing playback to the realm of mere novelty. The iPad has a gorgeous screen, but no additional storage and no subscription-based service or even Hulu/Netflix integration to circumvent it. In foregoing these possibilities, Apple may have inadvertently allowed a natural successor to the Apple TV pass them by.

I’m not shocked that they didn’t include a front-facing camera for video conferencing via iChat or Skype, but the exclusion of any camera at all is quite baffling.

iPossibility

While the iPhone innovated both as a device and as a platform, iPad’s future seems wholly staked in the latter. As mentioned earlier, it shares an operating system with the iPhone, and for good reason. As much as I love my tablet PC, traditional desktop paradigms do not translate gracefully to a touch interface. Apple wisely decided to force developers to create touch-friendly interfaces through a familiar SDK rather than offer clunky support for more open OS X applications. The unfortunate side effect of this is that the iPad’s usefulness is reliant on developers and the App Store approval process.

An iPad version of the Adobe Creative Suite would be a killer app for artists and designers, but creating a device-centric version of necessary scope would require a daunting amount of time and money to develop for a market largely dominated by 99-cent applications. This makes the future of these platform-specific productivity apps uncertain at best.

This doesn’t mean the iPad isn’t right for anyone. If you were planning on buying a netbook in addition to an e-reader and a 3G card for your laptop, the iPad is a usable and comparatively affordable convergence of all three. If you find desktop computers scary but enter a calm, trance-like state while using your iPhone, you might avoid a Mac or PC in favor of one of these puppies.

Otherwise, my verdict is to hold off. In a year or two we’ll likely see more revisions of the device, and developers will have either breathed life into the platform or let it die on the vine. Personally, I’m hoping for the former.

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