I think I qualify as an Apple fan. I bought an iPod in 2004, back when it was still black and white displays. I also have bought two different generations of iPod nanos, an 2nd gen iPod shuffle, a 1st gen iPod Touch, and I finally made my first MacBook purchase last year. I’ve also bought an iPhone 3G and now use a 3GS. I have an iMac at home back in Beijing; my dad is thinking of buying an Apple server for his office (though I strongly discouraged him about it).
When the iPad was first announced, I quickly made the decision that I wanted one, and I justified my decision by telling myself that it would be an laptop replacement for school. I’m pretty big on paperless, and prefer reading cases on my laptop instead of printing them out; so the dream product for me (for this purpose) would be a tablet with a stylus to take notes. The iPad doesn’t support a stylus, but from the original announcement, and the fact that there’s plenty of iPhone apps that support PDF viewing, I thought I could justify splurging $500 on the iPad. (And yes, I decided fairly early on I only wanted the $499 version. I don’t need 3G access and from my previous usage statistics I don’t need big storage.)
However, when the iPad reviews came out last Friday and the product shipped last Saturday, I realized that this 1st gen device does not pass as a laptop replacement, even for the relatively lightweight usage of school (email, PDF, and some basic Office apps). Then again, I’m thinking of using the device in the sense of a traditional computing paradigm, whereas from the onset Apple was looking at the device as an iPhone-esque paradigm, a closed system and a tightly controlled user experience.
The tradeoffs are numerous and huge in implications. Jobs and Apple criticized netbooks for being a device of compromise which doesn’t really excel at doing anything; they claimed that the iPad is “magical” and “revolutionary” in that it sets out to accomplish what netbooks were originally intended to do – convenient access to basic computing tasks (email, web, video) – without sacrificing the user experience. What was sacrificed was an open file system; multi-tasking; flash; multiple channels to access and purchase software. To state the obvious, the iPad copies iPhone’s user environment, rather than that of the MacBook.
This makes the iPad, as it is, primarily an entertainment device. There is nothing wrong per se with this positioning; Jobs’ hyperbole that the product is “revolutionary” still has some merit, in the sense that the device is beautifully intuitive to people with little prior experience with computers. The iPad to computing is akin to the Flip to video recording, or compact cameras to photography. It’s an entry level device (albeit a luxurious one) designed for the mass consumer.
Interestingly, this design philosophy has sparked a philosophical debate among heavyweight bloggers: Doctorow from Boing Boing fears that the iPad era means an era of stifled grassroots innovation and creativity (users are “infantilized” – kids can only play with it, but are restricted from exploring it and programming it – unless you hack it first), while Gruber argues that there will still be creative kids. I’m more inclined towards supporting Gruber’s position. The proportion of users who are interested in programming may decline, but that’s more due to computing becoming accessible to all rather than there being fewer aspiring programmers. I would even argue that the App Store, closed and arbitrary as it is, has leveled the playing ground a lot more for new programmers (ease of distribution and access to users), and therefore there should be more aspiring programmers than ever before.
That being said, the geek in me craves for a more open product than the iPad. I want the flexibility of having access to the file system, of having more than just the App Store to go to find software, and I need multitasking. I need to be able to type up a word document while also doing some web search. Apple has a pretty good history of improving its products – just look at the 1st gen iPhone and see how much it has improved (no 3G, no App Store – in hind-sight can you imagine people actually bought it?) – and give it ten months and I might be seriously tempted to get a 2nd gen iPad.