Observations on a month spent kind of holding the future
“ I held an iPad in my hands today and it was kind of like holding the future. The future is expensive and has a glass front. ”
As far as first impressions go, these (by Gavin Logan on Friday's Geekest Drink) are pretty much on the money. It might seem a little late in the day to be writing up thoughts on a new device — after a month here and several in the States, some would perhaps feel that the topic is a little stale. But as many initial observations of the device seem to be based on shininess or pricetag, I thought it would be a good idea to hold off until I'd seen how it works in the real world for a non-trivial period of time.
It should be noted up front that since day one (day two, perhaps) I have not been precious about this device at all — it's been thrown around, lived in the middle of pub tables or under chairs, and even served briefly as an impromptu drinks tray. It's been leant on occasions to two-year-olds and random drunken Welsh kickboxers. My pre-release thoughts were similar to those of Jeremy Keith — that this would be the perfect device for everyone else (mums were mentioned). Since it arrived, along with a slightly bemused UPS man ("what the hell are these and why are there so many?") I've been intrigued to see whether this is the case.
So, is it?
Anyone like myself, who grew up with the first few generations of microcomputers, will have constantly been told by books, films and old techies that computers used to take up whole rooms. But many of us have failed to notice that for years, this has still been the case — my parents have a 'computer room' in their house which is dedicated to a desktop PC, essentially used only for emails, web browsing, and the occasional Word document. Kathryn's folks have a similar setup. I don't think it'll be a huge newsflash that the iPad (and by iPad I mean iPad-like device — could easily be a non-Apple product) would fill this gap pretty nicely. Slightly more surprisingly is that even for someone as bound to a MacBook as myself, the iPad has taken over as the preferred device for these general tasks — email, web surfing, catching up with RSS, and Twitter. I find myself opening the MacBook only when I need to work, and in some cases, there's no reason that some of these functions shouldn't be possible (and more practical) on an iPad — basic photo screening, cropping, and resizing is a perfect example.
As a super-personal computer, the device is a great first step — since it arrived, my iPad has been a pretty much constant companion. And as Andy Clarke recently pointed out, if you carry one of these things around for a while, you're guaranteed plenty of opportunities to observe the way other people use it, whether you know them or not. Let's get one thing straight — although honestly observed, any points made here are firmly in the realm of anecdote rather than data.
- Geeks treat it differently. Might seem like an obvious point, but it's actually a big deal if you're looking at how people use this device — those with knowledge of the technical and political landscape around the device (and accompanying preconceptions) approach the iPad in a totally different way from everyone else. Just having it on the table at the most recent Geekest Drink event (as well as in my day-to-day life among techies) tended to divide people into two factions — one set gawp, gush, and briefly open Mail (perhaps Twitterific as well), while the other set speculate out loud about what possessed you to spend that much on a closed device when an Android / Windows / Linux alternative is... You get the idea. These points are all good! It is a lovely, polished device with a lot of great features — equally, it's got a myriad of problems which other devices have / will / should improve on. Really though, we don't learn anything by looking at how fanboys (of any flavour) treat a device.
- Everyone else gets on with it. It really is as easy to use as Apple would have you believe! An example: while I was visiting my folks in the south last week, my sister (who was on a roadtrip to the east coast) phoned my mum to say they'd gotten pretty lost after their sat-nav led them into a badly-signposted diversion. Having only used the iPad briefly the evening before for a bit of web browsing, my mum used the device to access a map, grab directions, and talk my sister through her next few moves (successfully, it should be added). Even better: my two-year old niece boldly proclaims "that's Uncle Andrew's computer. You have to wipe it", while making the scrolling motion of an Uncle who spends too much time on Twitterific.
- Really social computing. Over the last half-decade the word 'social' in computing has been synonymous with applications which allow people to stay in contact with friends and contacts remotely, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I threw a barbecue for a bunch of old friends a few weeks ago, with some music playing through iTunes on my Mac from the house and the group sitting in the sunshine at the far end of the garden. I had the Remote app set up on the iPad (set in the middle of the table) so that people could choose whatever music they wanted — there's some pretty varied tastes in the group, and it seemed a good way to make sure everyone was happy. What was interesting was that the device was pretty swiftly integrated into the normal conversation — the couple who were getting married a few days later showed us the venue (and the easiest way to get there); another couple who were recently engaged showed us venues they were considering. Importantly, I'm not talking about conversations about the iPad, which is what tends to happen around tech people — geeks see the device, non-geeks see the content which is relevant to them.
Is it worth it?
Talking of geeks, this is the phrase that always comes up when discussing the iPad. It's a remarkably difficult question to answer, too — mine has instantly become the most used computer in our house (and typically whatever house I'm in at the time), it travels with me everywhere, and I love it to bits. On the other hand, there are more than a few things which would stop me from recommending it (see below). A lot of people tell me they're waiting for the second version, and looking at how Apple has released new versions of products in the past that's probably a very good idea — unless for some reason you're interested in working with cutting-edge devices that may shape our industry for years to come.
The obligatory blog-post bullet list
Because it wouldn't be a blog post without one. A final summary of mini-observations:
- 3G. I picked up an O2 sim when I ordered the iPad, but I didn't activate it until several weeks later, just before I went away for an extended period. I'm glad I did — it would seem like half a device without this now, the connectivity is impressive, and the bandwidth limit at £10 a month is more than adequate in my experience.
- Video. This is the best device ever made for watching video. I couldn't tell you about encoding video for it, ripping DVDs, or anything like that — I picked up a bunch of £5 series of old BBC series on iTunes for while I was travelling, and it vastly improves a five-hour trip.
- Battery life. It's just as good as everyone says. I watched full-screen video for the entire aforementioned trip, and the battery was still over 60% when I got in.
- Price. This post started with a paean to how this device was the future for people like my parents. Sadly, it's not the present — it costs more than my original desktop Mac (although that was second hand) or pretty much any of my parents' desktop machines. I would expect it to come right down in future versions — and hopefully a slew of cost-effective competitors will mean that there'll be plenty of equally appealing alternatives.
- iTunes. As a long-time iPhone user this hurts doubly. Why are we still using iTunes as a single point of contact for these devices? Why is it still such a blunt instrument? If Apple are betting the farm on iOS devices (which they certainly seem to be) there must be something better in the pipeline — but until then, bear in mind that trying to sync the device is a fucking shambles.
- App interoperability. I'm pretty sure that Gruber recently talked about how much iOS needs a services list to let applications interact (couldn't find the article, but if anyone remembers the one I mean, please let me know). Anyway, it's totally true — this is the most useful, convenient computer in the world, except for the 1% of the time where you need two third-party apps to work together.
- Device interoperability. Both the iPad and iPhone are bluetooth, wifi, and 3G-capable devices. Why the hell can't I transfer pictures from one to the other without doing it one file at a time using Dropbox? Unlike many, I totally understand why Apple wants to keep their devices locked down so tight — but in several places this crosses over into partially crippling perfectly good devices.
- Showing yourself off. In the past, I've written about building a digital offline portfolio site — and this was the first thing that sprung to mind when I watched the original Jobs keynote. Since then, I've built a simple but fairly complete portfolio using HTML5 and app-caching. This will be a full blog post at some point — suffice to say it's definitely the best device I've ever encountered for keeping my full portfolio available at all times.
Wrapping this train wreck up
The iPad is a great device which has integrated neatly into just about every bit of my life. Do you need one? It's doubtful — you already have machines that do all the same things, and more besides. Would you like one? Probably — it does a lot of things, and it does them quicker, better, and more conveniently than those other devices. But it's not really about whether you want or need this specific device, or whether it's got an Apple logo on the back — hopefully other manufacturers will be releasing amazing alternatives very soon. The important thing is that this is the most personal computer I've ever owned, and I hope it'll be the first of many.