29 Jan 2010

iPad: computing re-imagined, and openness

After I watched the iPad keynote and the Reality Distortion Field wore off, I was a little underwhelmed. It wasn't clear that the iPad lived up to Jobs's claim of being significantly better in a few key areas. It just seemed like a giant iPod Touch or a computer with a small screen and without a keyboard.

But then I realized I was looking at it all wrong. Being used to laptops on one hand and phones on the other, I was comparing the iPad to these two, and so obviously all I could see were limitations. That makes as much sense as dismissing the iPhone as an underpowered computer. Rather than look at the iPad from the perspective of a laptop, I decided to look at its advantages:
  • It's more portable — smaller, thinner and lighter.
  • The form factor is beautiful. It's just an elegant piece of glass. Even my Macbook Pro seems clunky by comparison. Why shouldn't computers be so beautifully designed rather than merely utilitarian?
  • It has a very long battery life. Even taking the 10 hours claim with a grain of salt, it's much better than laptops. I'm sure it will be an incredible relief from devices that need to be plugged in practically all the time. And in countries like India, with frequent 8-hour power cuts, a long battery life makes all the difference.
  • 3G: Having an internet connection of its own rather than relying on an external source like WiFi is great, because you are connected on the go, and at home when you have a power outage. I thought that the iPad will be carrier-locked, given Apple's history with the iPhone, even in markets like India where few phones are locked. But when Apple is establishing a new kind of computing device, it only hurts them to restrict it that way, and set a precedent that's bad for everyone except the carriers.
  • Multi-touch: I haven't used the iPad yet, but I'm sure it's very satisfying to directly touch objects rather than going through an intermediary like a mouse. Plus who knows what advantages multi-touch has? For example, zooming and panning in maps seemed much better than on a computer, with a keyboard and mouse. There will be a gold rush of user interface advancements in the new paradigm.
  • It has a high-resolution screen (132 pixels per inch).
  • It's cheaper than most laptops.
But the interesting things are not what it has, but what it doesn't. To start with, you are free from malware of all kinds — virii, worms, spyware, keyloggers, trojan horses and bots. The existence of so many terms is itself a sad state of affairs for the computer industry. Any technology that doesn't just work by itself and requires users to learn and carefully follow a big list of dos and don'ts is broken. Apple just fixed computing. The iPad is a safe computer for everyone.

In addition to being malware-free, it doesn't become slow over time, you can't corrupt it say, by deleting files you're not supposed to delete, and so forth.

And it's simpler — no overlapping windows. One thing at a time. You never have many windows on screen at once, you don't position them, there's no notion of which window is focused, and so forth. One thing at a time. No menu bar, either. Let the app decide how to present its UI, rather than forcing a hierarchical menu layout on everyone. There's no notion of running vs. closed apps, and so no dock or taskbar to switch between running apps. And no notion of running apps without a visible window that you reach from the system tray or status bar.

I'm exhilarated at the idea of not dealing with windows, menus, a dock or taskbar, and a system tray that apps can hide in, and the idea of manually quitting apps. Very simple. One thing at a time.

You don't spend your time positioning windows. There aren't zillions of options to twiddle. In addition to being simple, the iPad is an administrivia-free computing experience.

This is the New World of computers.

The iPad runs the same apps as your iPhone. If you think about it, why shouldn't your computer run the same apps as your phone? Just because it has a bigger screen?

Some people wish that it ran Mac OS X rather than iPhone OS. But the latter is more lightweight and so is faster and results in a longer battery life. It's also more secure and simpler, doing away with the overlapping windows paradigm. And it does away with cruft that accumulated in Mac OS X.

The final, and most serious, concern is that the iPhone/iPad platform is not open. As Alex puts it eloquently:
The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today. I’d never have had the ability to run whatever stupid, potentially harmful, hugely educational programs I could download or write. I wouldn’t have been able to fire up ResEdit and edit out the Mac startup sound so I could tinker on the computer at all hours without waking my parents. The iPad may be a boon to traditional eduction, insofar as it allows for multimedia textbooks and such, but in its current form, it’s a detriment to the sort of hacker culture that has propelled the digital economy.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If openness and tinkering and being able to do what you want without permission are important, that will ultimately reflect in the apps. Competing platforms should have better apps. And this is already happening. When I read that the best mobile Gmail experience is on Nexus One (Disclaimer: I work for Google), and Google Maps navigation and Google Voice are not available or not as good on the iPhone, I think that's the end result of the mismanaging the platform. If I were Apple, reading that the Nexus One is a better phone than the iPhone for people who heavily use Google apps would have scared the hell out of me. Mac OS X isn't any worse an OS to access Google services, and Chrome lets you access Bing as well as it does google.com.

So, if openness is important, and the iPad isn't open, good old-fashioned capitalism should sort it out, giving us competing tablets based on Android, Chrome OS or some other OS that are better in ways that matter to users, while building on top of all the genuine advances iPad makes. I don't think that the future is dystopian at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment