Some thoughts on the iPad and Apple in general

Here are my thoughts on the iPad. These are based on the iPad unveiling video: Steve Jobs unveils iPad and on the specs.

And if you like that video you'll love this one: iPad Stress Tests. Although you won't be able to watch it on you iPad because it doesn't do flash...

Existing Apple products

But first an overview of my take on Apple's current products: the iPod, the iPhone and the Mac notebooks. It is important to consider these products, because the iPad is supposed to fill the gaps between these products and together these products show that Apple has a good track record of making quality products.

The iPod

I own an iPod nano. I am quite satisfied with it. I wanted a small solid state mp3 player with a user interface that would allow me to easily navigate through all my songs. Apple delivered. It is hard for me to even imagine a better device. Though granted I got a 2nd or 3rd generation nano and not the first iPod that might have had some bugs, etc.

But had I wanted a hard disk drive in my mp3 player I could have gotten an iPod classic. If I had wanted a tiny mp3 player for the gym, or whatever and didn't need a screen I could have gotten an iPod shuffle. And more recently if I want an mp3 player that comes with apps, games and wifi, I can get an iPod touch.

The iPhone

I do not own an iPhone. I have a Nokia N97. I wanted a qwerty keyboard along with my touchscreen. Apple didn't make a phone with a keyboard. Apple doesn't even make phones with keys. You can't answer the phone without using the touchscreen. If you're wearing gloves, or it's so cold that the touchscreen locks up (Canada), you're out of luck. Nokia made a phone with a sweet new kind of sliding keyboard where they keyboard comes out at an angle and looks like a mini laptop, I was sold. Other people don't like sliders, they want the keyboard under the screen (like a Blackberry). Nokia makes those too: E71, E72. But if they didn't you could get a blackberry or maybe a palm or something.

Everyone is impressed with how well the iPhone is doing. But to me it could be doing even better. If we assume it is the best smartphone and possibly the best phone in the world, then why do people buy other phones. Why doesn't it dominate like iPods do?

It is clear why I didn't buy an iPhone. No keyboard. Other people will not want one because it doesn't have a blackberry form factor, or keys, or because it doesn't come unlocked (I wanted an unlocked phone to use with prepaid sim cards when I travel), or because it is generally bundled with a data plan, or simply because it is too expensive.

The solution is simple: have a selection of iPhones, like the iPods. Have a touchscreen one, call it the iPhone classic. Have a slider one with a qwerty keyboard, call it the iPhone slidy. Have one with the keyboard under the screen, call it the iPhone thumb or something. And have an iPhone that's just a normal phone, plus a simple iPod nano-ish interface to play mp3s and look at photos and call it the iPhone nano.

Apple would probably find that that iPhone nano would be their best seller. Almost everyone needs a phone these days, and almost everyone wants an iPod. Even my parents would probably buy one of those.

Then there is the keyboard or touchscreen keyboard for people who text a lot. All the rest of the smartphone stuff is gravy. Fun gravy but gravy nonetheless.

It's true that people want to be entertained. But when most people think of being entertained by their phone, they think of talking to friends, listening to music, watching videos, texting and emailing friends, and then maybe browsing the web, twitter and facebook.

There may be a million apps, but really you will probably really use 10 or less on a daily basis.

This is what I use on my phone: Profimail for email (it handles folders with thousands of messages)
Built in web browser (for the web)
Putty a terminal program for connecting to my linux server
The 5 mega-pixer camera on my phone for taking picture
Google maps (oops I left out gps, not too entertaining but useful)
Music player
Alarm clock
Shazam to identify songs.

Those are my ten.

The Mac notebooks

As for Mac notebooks. Well I've always owned PCs. What are the advantages of having a PC. More to choose from, and generally better prices. This is hardware wise. Software wise the advantage is being able to run all the PC software that is out there. Basically the opposite of the iPhone situation. On the PC there's an app for that... On the Mac, not so much...

I will explain the hardware aspect by way of example. I just bought a netbook today. Specifically a blue Asus Eee PC 1005PE. It is selling on for $355. It's 10 inches, and the battery is rated to run for 14 hours. And it does really run for 10 or 11+ hours. I have been running it since 10pm and the battery is at 54% now that it is 3:38 am, and windows is telling me that I have 6 hours and 6 minutes left.

Now the cheapest Mac notebook on is $999, and it is supposed to run for 7 hours, which means it will probably run for 5. Well it is more powerful, faster processor, more ram, sweet video card, etc. But I just want email, web browsing, office and a text editor/terminal for programming. The extra $600+ doesn't really help with any of that. Again Apple doesn't have a cheaper option.

Yes Apple has 3 different types of notebooks: entry level MacBooks, the more expensive MacBook Prop, and the thin and in-between MacBook Air.

But there is no budget and affordable option.

You can get a decent PC notebook for $500 to $600. Again the cheapest Mac notebook is $999. That's a 100% premium for the Mac factor...

What about the software part. Isn't it true that Mac OS X is wonderful and everyone should use that, because it's so much better... Well let's put aside the fact that Windows is the de facto standard for a second.

Apple is great at making products that differentiate themselves from the competition and offer something unique. The iPod interface with the click wheel. The amazing touch interface of the iPhone and iPod touch. And last and unfortunately least Mac Os X.

I say least because technically Mac Os X can run on a PC, just as windows will run on a Mac. Apple doesn't like the idea of PCs running OS X and getting that to work by hacking it yourself is basically illegal, but it can be done.

So yes Apple could sell you a PC version of Mac OS X and you could pop in the CD and run it on the PC you are using right now. In fact if Apple licensed it, you could order Mac OS X as an option when buying a PC desktop or notebook from Dell, HP, etc.

But obviously if they did that the market for the expensive Mac notebooks with their nice mark-ups and huge margins would dry up a little.

Also Mac OS X would compete head to head with windows. Users wouldn't get emotionally tricked by their investment in Mac hardware. If you pay a 100% premium to get a Mac notebook you are going to be biased to view Mac OS X as better, because you've invested in it. You don't want to think well really this isn't that good, I'm such a fool to have wasted that money.

That's not to say that Mac OS X wouldn't do well in a head to head match up. Only to say that you wouldn't have that leap of faith that would ensure that only people who really want to go to the Mac side actually get to see Mac OS.

And you know at the end of the day, the end user doesn't care about the OS. They care about the apps. I don't know if anyone has said this before, but "it's the apps stupid" or something like that. To the user the main difference they notice when changing OS is the difference in default theme and window decoration and maybe a slight difference in how often and in what way their computer misbehaves. But if they lose their favourite app in the transition then they will fight it tooth and nail, and if they don't get some new exclusive app then they won't have any motivation to switch. Especially if there's a learning curve, no matter how shallow.

4:04 am 50% battery, 6 hours and 15 minutes of power left...

And finally the iPad

So where does this leave us with the iPad? Well it depends on what differentiates the iPad. Is it something unbeatable like the iPod navigation interface. Is it something groundbreaking and mind-altering like the iPhone touch interface. Or is it something that's mostly just a difference and at best a tie, like Mac OS X.

That's where the analysis stops, and where we the users have to play with the thing and see what it can do for us. So excuse me for a second while I go and watch the rest of that video of the iPad unveiling. Be right back...

So first Steve Jobs says that the iPad has to be better at some things than both the smartphones and notebooks. These things are: browsing, email, photos, video, music, games, ebooks.

That is a pretty tall order. I guess I better keep watching the video and see how the iPad stacks up.

Now jobs says that while some people think that netbooks are the answer to that question, they are not, because: they are not better at anything. They are slow, they have bad displays and they run clunky old PC software. They're just cheaper.

My response to that is that they are faster than smartphones at everything, that they have better battery life and portability than notebooks. And that their displays (LED backlit LCDs) are generally what the iPad is aiming for, except no touchscreen on the netbooks, and no widescreen on the iPad.

As for the clunky PC sofware, well netbooks could run Mac OS X just as easily as windows.

And yeah if the netbook is a smaller less powerful notebook, then maybe the iPad is just a bigger more powerful iPhone? But I'll keep watching the video because it is fascinating.

Ok we're getting a slideshow. Browsing is it better, not for me, I love having a bazillion tabs, and typing in search queries, and cutting and pasting stuff, does it do that better than a notebook, well yes and no. Easier to scroll around, but not easier to type searches in, and not easier to cut and paste text, more intuitive for a beginner yes, but I've already invested in typing skills and copy paste skills.

But photos? Yes million times better. Touch screen is great for just sliding photos around and reorganizing them. That is a huge win.

Same thing for music and videos, but to a lesser degree. Since you cue up some stuff in your favourite player on your laptop (maybe even iTunes) and you just sit back and enjoy. Though again flipping through stuff on a touchscreen is a much nicer experience. But once you've got the song you want or the movie you want, then you're not really using the interface anymore. Not like with picture where you want to flip to the next picture every 10 seconds. Again think about how often you want to touch the screen while watching a movie. Probably just to tap the screen to pause the movie, or maybe rewind a bit.

Now the actual demo. Browsing in safari doesn't look as fast as google chrome. Probably a little slower than firefox and IE. Touching the screen to click looks great. Until you get a tiny link and then you have to zoom in first, and even then it a tricky manoeuvre and you probably wish you had a mouse... I know this because if I come across a tiny link, crammed right next to a bunch of other tiny links on my smartphone I use the directional pad to move a little cursor onto the right link.

Email looks great to read. But typing it looks like a pain. It looks slow. Unlikely that you would be able to type a long email. I cringe thinking about writing this long pointless essay on an iPad without an external keyboard.

Photos! Finally! The iPad really shines. Ultra fast super intuitive. What's not to love. The touch interface really comes in handy. Better than a notebook hands down.

Then there's a nice but generally unimpressive music, video, calendar, etc. demonstration.

Finally on to the hardware. It's a 9.7 inch display. So basically the same size as a netbook. But it does have the great multi-touch on the screen. But no keyboard. And no USB. It's got wifi, and bluetooth. But no built in 3G. And without USB that means you will probably have to use MiFi when you don't have wifi. Or maybe you could use your phone's 3G over bluetooth, not likely, but theoretically possible.

Now on to the battery life. An impressive 10 hours. Well not so impressive. If they say 10 hours, that means 8 or 9 hours. And right now I'm on hour 7 on my netbook, with 38% or 3 hours and 57 minutes of battery left. So not much better than the best netbook. And my netbook is running an intel atom. Granted it is similar to their custom chip since it has an on-chip memory controller and GPU, but my processor is x86 compatible and runs PC software. If the netbook designers were free to break binary compatibility then they could have gone with an arm processor and possibly doubled the battery life.

And next they talk about apps, and explain that you can run all the iPhone apps. This suggest binary compatibility with the iPhone. But this also means that it runs it pixel for pixel the same. And so at a quarter of the resolution. Thankfully they have an option to "pixel double" and fill the whole screen, but obviously not at the quality you could get by running a native app.

Oh man is it ever depressing when they run the app at the original resolution without the double stretching. You get this tiny iPhone sized app centered in the middle of this huge (by comparison) screen. It is the saddest thing I have ever seen.

They try to impress you by runing a 3D OpenGL game at that tiny resolution. Why would that be impressive? If the iPhone and iPod touch can run the game why wshouldn't the iPAd? And then they try to brag abut how you can have the game fullscreen. Are you kidding me? First it looks like crap. And second how is that a feature. If you had to play the game using a quarter of the screen the iPad would be useless.

Now they announce the release of the iPad SDK to make native apps. Thank goodness! And they bring in some guys from Gameloft to demo an actual game. It's a 3rd person shooter and it looks super watered down. But I mean what do you expect from a 3d shooter that can only use a touchscreen for controls.

Then they demo some more apps. Not bad considering the developers only had 2 or 3 weeks to get their demos up and running.

Now they get back to the interesing stuff: ebooks. They have nice looking viewer, with a bookshelf and a online ebook store. The only problem is that the display is pretty much an LCD computer monitor and I imagine it would tire out one's eyes. I mean it's not that bad browsing the web, but reading 400 pages of straight text could be painful.

Even more interesting is iWork, which looks like their productivity suite. I guess that's sort of like office or powerpoint or something. So they realized that it would be a challenge to reinvent a new user interface for the touchscreen rather than the keyboard and mouse. And I guess they're going to demo it next.

But it looks like I've watched an hour of this video, and that's enough for one day. It looks like there's about another half hour left. I guess I'll go through that some other time.

Anyways if you're still keeping score we're at 8 hours of continuous netbook use, with 29% battery and 2 hours and 58 minutes left. So what would seem like 11 hours of actual battery life on the asus 1005pe.

Signing off Saturday April 3rd 2010 at 6am. See you all soon. Though by the time I'm back the iPads will have hit the stores and we'll know what people actually think.

So far I think the iPad will be a great device. But not a netbook killer. It's a totally different animal altogether. It's more of a read-only device. Great for looking at pictures, great for watching videos and listening to music. But terrible for writing long documents like this one. Terrible for 3d shooters. Great for just consuming tons of information, which is not a bad thing. It's a fun and potentially useful gadget/toy. But not a powerful tool.

As for me I want a keyboard...

Ok back for a short bit. It seems the 10 hour battery life rating is pretty accurate. It does 10+ hours under actual use, which is great. That is as good as the best netbook, and this is the first model being released. Huge win here.``

On the other hand the comfort and ergonomics might not be ideal. 1.5 lbs sounds light, and it would be in your lap, not in your hands. This is an experiement I just did and I recommend it unless you can get your hands on an actual iPad. Go to the kitchen grab a china dinner plate. You will find that it is just over a lb. Now hold that in front of you with one hand and try to touch it with the other... Now imagine doing that for any length of time. Now imagine trying to type on it while standing. No way are you going to be able to use both hands, in fact it will be uncomfortable enough just holding it with one hand and clicking with the other. I mean maybe that's not their goal, maybe they're meant only to be use while sitting down and not while walking. But whenever I think of a computer pad, I think of the ones on Star Trek the Next Generation. And beside if I want a mobile device that I can only use when I'm sitting down then well I'll just use a laptop, or a netbook. Not so much of a win here...

Oh yeah and it seems no GPS on the wifi model... So that awesome maps application is not such a killer app. I mean it's still better than a laptop. Google maps is one application that I would love to access through a touch interface.

And again no widescreen. Pretty annoying if you want to watch movies. But fine for TV shows (well the non-hd ones). It's funny they keep braggin about the high quality display and the 720p video playback and they don't have a widescreen display, so you get the annoying black bars that a lot of people hate.

Oh yeah and no multi-tasking! My phone does multi-tasking. I am typing this while I have my email and an article about the ipad on bloomberg mobile open in the background. I could be listening to music or receiving a call too.

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