Beyond iPad razzmatazz

Not revolutionary, but definitely a game changer

by Roopinder Singh

SO much more intimate than a laptop, and so much more capable than a smart phone – Steve Jobs’ description of the latest offering by Apple defines it quite well. Now that the hype over the much-anticipated iPad has decreased, we can have a look at the device and what it will mean to computer users.

The physical description of iPad is simple enough: It measures 9.56 inches, is 7.47 inches wide and just half an inch in height. At 680 grams for the Wi-Fi model (seven grams more for 3G), it is light and sleek. A 1GHz Apple A4 custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip makes it powerful, and the 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen multi-touch display provides a rich visual experience. I have not used one, but the description as a “bigger iPhone” is enough. The iPhone has really changed the way smart phones are perceived, used and sold. The elegance of Apple’s operating system is beguiling – there is nothing like it in any other computing universe.

It is interesting that the iPad’s screen is slightly larger than that of the Macintosh, the first Apple that I owned in 1985. It was the first commercially successful personal computer (PC) to use images, rather than text, to interface with the user, and was way more elegant and user-friendly than comparable PCs, like the IBM PC AT that operated on the Microsoft’s archaic MS-DOS 3.0.

It was simply a walkover. The Mac was fun, and the MS-DOS didn’t even know the word! The screen was black and white, you could not customise anything, but everything you needed, the hardware as well as the software was available out of the box.

Computers and the mouse had existed before Apple took Xerox’s GUI, tweaked it and made computing far more approachable to the normal user. It was not innovation, but implementation that set Apple apart. In fact, Apple normally uses various things that are already available, and puts them together in such a way that not only do they work well together – they also provide an experience that makes users pay a premium.

iPad is getting rave reviews already from the few who have used it. It is a tablet computer, which simply means that it is a slate shaped computer device that has a touch screen and is mobile. The multi-touch screen, which we have seen on iPhone and iPod Touch too, responds not only to touch, but also to gestures. It has access to literally over lakh applications, some free.

All this sets it apart from an ordinary tablet PC or e-reader. The iPad will let you use content – see it, hear it and read it – and also input content through the virtual keyboard on the screen will allow you to do so, say in case you want to answer your e-mails or write something. For many, the announcement that iPad has a keyboard dock is significant, as virtual typing has its limitations, especially when one is typing long documents.

Your digital photos will be displayed and organised in various ways, and you can see movies, or play games. The organiser has a great look and feel, and there are also good word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programmes.

The New York Times was the first paper to come on board the iPad. With a motion sensor, you get the landscape mode, and thus you can read your paper, magazines, etc., on the go. They will come with advertisements, a point which scores over Kindle and enhances the Apple appeal for publishers. Macmillan, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster and Hachette have already come aboard the iPad — you can buy their latest books online.

As of now, Apple store sells books at a higher price than Amazon’s Kindle. There is much speculation that iPad’s media-rich platform will soon have books that just won’t just be words…they will have sound and video, too. Apple has also inked a deal with ScrollMotion, a content technology company based in New York, to handle textbooks for iPad. Will this be the end of the heavy school bag? Not yet, and certainly not here, since iBooks is initially only for the US, but a beginning is being made.

Incidentally, both Kindle and its competitor Nook, brought out by the Barnes and Noble bookstore, use a technology called iInk, which is better for reading long texts, since the screen is not back-lit and thus does not cause eyes to strain.

Browsing on the Web, indeed downloading newspapers and magazines will be significantly impaired by the fact that like there is no support for Adobe Flash, which has become a standard in displaying interactive graphics, animations, etc., while browsing.

The lack of multitasking support is as inexplicable as that of a camera, or for that matter a USB port to enable easier exchange of data. Some of these are things that will probably get sorted out soon, some may never be, and if so, will impact the user experience. Gaming on iPad will probably find many users, but the real aficionados will want (even) more power, and many games run on Flash and Java, both of which are not supported by iPad.

The iTunes store has sold millions of songs and redefined the way people access music online. Over a lakh of applications have been developed for the iPhone, and can be used on the iPad, many are being optimised for this task right now..

iPhone may not be an e-book reader to beat Kindle or Nook, both of which are easier on the eyes in the long run and have a longer battery life; it may not be like the regular Net-books, which have real keyboards and can fold into the pocket; it may not even be a communication device that can replace your smart phone. The iPad is a product of its own kind and how it evolves will depend on what use its owners put it for. Apple has a history of making devices that sell well and shape the future, because they already have a foot in it.

This article was published on the OpEd page of The Tribune on February 6, 2010

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