Some iPad thoughts

A little birdie told me that you (all seven of you) have been waiting anxiously for my thoughts on the iPad – the definitive iPad perspective. 🙂

Here you go.

First, I don’t have one myself yet, but I have had a chance to play on friends’ iPads. Second, while I don’t consider myself an Apple apologist, some of my friends accuse me of being so. And, finally, before you think I’m an iPad hater, I want to preface this whole thing with the fact that I do believe that iPad represents a step into the future and while I might not be ready to pay $600 for one today, I expect to have a device like this in my household sometime in the not too distant future.

A few jabs… look away if you can’t stand anything negative about iPad

Upon finally getting my hands on a real iPad to play with for the first time, my first reaction was disappointment in the display quality.  I had been pumped up to expect pictures, video and web sites to be “gorgeous” and “stunning”, but for me it was more meh.  Perhaps my expectations were just too high. Some examples:

Video. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought the video in particular was okay,  but not stellar or HDTV beautiful. It looked to me like typical medium-rez PC video, pixelated, blurry, and laced with digital artifacts – granted, on a bright and glossy screen.

Games. I was also not that impressed with games.  iPad doesn’t compare to a $300 $159 Xbox and $150 HDTV. My son is a gamer and he wasn’t impressed at all either.

Web pages. The browsing experience is fast with a nice UI generally. But, as others have noted, the typography could be better.

So how does it change the world?

In what could be characterized as “flame-bait”, Daniel Eran Dilger names 19 things iPad will kill including: Kindle, Netbook PCs, PSP, DS, Flash, Silverlight, MS Office, Windows Media Center, set-top boxes, TiVo, Chrome OS, and Android. While I take issue with some of the history and reasoning in Dilger’s post, I generally agree with the conclusions. That’s a lot of carnage.

But that’s already been said.  Probably every idea regarding iPad has already been said somewhere out there in the Internets, but here are a few ideas I haven’t seen yet.

Does it spell the end of open-computing?

There are a lot of fears that iPad marks the beginning of the end for computers as we know them. That is, the kind of computers that let us download and buy software from wherever we want. I think this is partially true. I don’t think “real computers” go away, but iPad (and its future offspring) certainly change the role of real computers. It won’t happen overnight, but they will be shifting into a niche role, for high-end verticals. For one thing, you still need a “real computer” to develop the software that runs on the closed systems like iPad.  These old-school type machines will still be used for other high-end applications, like professional photo work, video etc.  They won’t go away completely, but over time, “real computers” become less mainstream and most people get all they need from “closed” machines like iPad.

I think there will be room for hybrids, computers that can act like iPads, and iPads than can act like computers. Consider an iPad-pro that is essentially a jailbroken iPad. I think iPad will (or should) become an App on Macs (essentially an end-user version of the iPad emulator we have in Xcode) – sort of analogous to how Front Row makes AppleTV an App on Macs – oh yeah, and Macs will have multi-touch touchscreens.

Does it replace the laptop?

Here’s my take. Yes, for most people… but not entirely.  Or, in other words, maybe my answer is really “well, sorta.”  You see, I think the laptop and the iPad will converge, into a spectrum of machines ranging from, on the low-end, closed devices that look like the iPad of today and, on the high-end, devices that look a bit more like a laptop of today, or more like the tablet-PC type machines.  But these higher-end machines will be more niche, less mainstream.

The iPad type device will be the core device and there will be a range from more phone-like ones, smaller and more portable, to larger, more “coffee-table” ones.

You’ll drop this semi-portable iPad type device on your desk and it will sync up to your bigger HD monitor and physical keyboard (for those that want the old school type PC) and will act mostly like a PC as we know it today.  You’ll do all the stuff people do, web surfing, documents, presentations, music, video, greeting cards (yes it will sync to a printer too) and of course email, chat (and blogging) etc.  For most people, this is all they’ll ever need and the iPad becomes their laptop, desktop, mobile, coffee table, and multimedia home entertainment device. Done.

In a desktop mode, the iPad may physically also serve as the equivalent of the mouse, or i.e. one of the input devices of this “docking station” computer-like setup.  There may even be docking stations that look like a laptop as we know them today. Some peripherals will connect physically. Most will connect wirelessly (finally, Bill Joy’s Jini dream comes to life).

This future is a docking station, cloud-computing, traditional computing hybrid model.  Some data and apps are in the could. Some are local, or cached in a hybrid cloud model. Some computing tasks happen on the iPad “core” device. Others occur within separate CPUs in the linked up and networked peripherals (this already happens today, with routers, network storage, our TVs, Bluray players, etc).

At the low-end (and the largest mainstream segment) it’s a closed world, where people get Apps from approved app stores and that’s fine with them.  For a price, on the high-end there will be more “open” platforms, all the way up to the top of the stack, the platforms used to develop the code for the “closed” platforms.  There will be some layers in between: iPads that are more “open”  as well as traditional-style computers that are more “closed” and some hybrids in between.

So, in the end, I don’t think iPad spells doom and gloom or the end of software innovation. Things are going to change. There will be winners and there will be losers. But I think there will be opportunity throughout the value chain with wealth spread around in a long-tail manner. Yes, the vast majority mainstream users will be on “closed” platforms (by today’s definition) but that may be a good thing, in some ways – and the iPad is certainly not really “closed” compared to, say, a cable TV set-top box. People can still get third-party apps, and (probably) users will still be able to use web apps without Apple approval.

Final thoughts, Immediate uses for iPad

On the coffee-table. For me, the first use is as a living room device, a coffee-table browser basically. This is particularly true of this first generation of iPad that doesn’t have cellular data, so it will only work in Wifi hotspots, making it somewhat less useful as a mobile device. I think before long, we are just going to expect to find an iPad on the coffee table.

Laptop substitute. There’s also the “almost laptop” role.  I’ve tried countless devices over the years for this purpose (including the Sharp Zaurus and Nokia N800) and I’ve always come back to a real laptop. For everything I can’t do on my iPhone, I pretty much need a real laptop, particularly if it involves connecting to external hardware, like flashdrives, printers or VGA/DVI video projectors. For me, the iPad in its current form may not be adequate, sitting in limbo between the iPhone and a real laptop, but there may be some times when it would work for me as a substitute for a laptop. I think for a lot of people, including journalist Larry Magid, the iPad serves this role just fine already, in its current form.

Demos. I think the iPad will be the new hand-held interactive brochure. I don’t do a lot of this kind of activity myself, but I think these will be all over trade-show floors, showrooms, etc.

Contrary to the views of many, I don’t think the iPad, or at least not this first version, will be that huge of an eBook reader… yet. I think it will get there, but I think initially people will use it, especially the first wifi-only iPads, in the above roles more than as an eBook reader.  Nor do I think it will be a big game machine – people will play games on it for sure, and eventually it surpasses PSP, DS etc. – but in the near term, partially due to cost, pure gamers will stick with other platforms/devices.

Any bets on how soon before I get an iPad?  When are you getting yours?