The iPad is a blank canvas, teeming with potential

For the last time people, it’s not about specs! Processor speed, RAM, and graphic chips are not how you judge an Apple product. This is faster and that is smaller and this one does multitasking and has USB ports and a network jack. It doesn’t matter.

I won’t prognosticate about how the iPad will sell, or how successful it will be. I will simply say that the iPad is innovative in the same way that the iPhone and iPod Touch were innovative. It’s just a bigger iPhone, you argue? Of course it is! That is an argument for it, not against. Remember Minority Report? Remember every other cool movie or tech demo that showed amazingly slick touch screen interfaces? How many of them had standard menu bars, or windows with close and minimize buttons, or Start menus? None of them did. So why is it that when people talk about tablets, they talk about shrinking Windows or Mac OS to a smaller screen?

The iPhone succeeded in large part because Apple conceptualized a whole new user experience. The iPad, if it succeeds, will do so in large part because, like the iPhone, it is familiar. It uses gestures we use in life, its iconography is rarely confusing, and it just works in a smooth, clean, fluid way that totally abstracts away the whole notion that we are using a powerful little computer with files and folders and processes and RAM and software updates. The reason that every tablet so far has failed, and the iPad may just succeed, is because instead of taking a 1980s-era desktop metaphor and shrinking it down, Apple took an entirely new direction, the iPhone direction, and blew it up.

On Windows, every app has its own user interface conventions and different sized and shaped buttons and windows. Every version of Office re-arranges things and adds new colors and shapes and shortcuts. The modern Mac aesthetic, in contrast, generally strives towards minimalism. Most of the best apps use standard platform UI conventions with minor enhancements that are intuitive and clean. Powerful and expensive apps look simple and almost boring at first glance: the full potential is hidden and gradually becomes apparent as the app just works the way the user expects, the same way as other Mac apps. Still, almost all desktop computers, Macs included, overflow with confusing error messages, dialog boxes, file save windows, and various other extraneous nonsense. My codecs are out of date? You need to modify what registry? Windows demands to shut down right now to install critical updates? Why do I have to deal with all this stuff?

Apple has created a whole new set of interface conventions and user experience standards for the iPhone and, now, iPad. These opinionated guidelines and development frameworks make it very easy to do things the “Apple way” and much more difficult to do things in non-standard ways. Apple has cut off low-level access to the system, restricting applications (err, “apps”) so that if they break, they leave everything else as they found it. Apple has created standard system-wide gestures, buttons, and interaction paradigms that just work — everywhere. The iPad puts the content front-and-center, and hides all the needless chrome. I doubt you will be able to find any successful apps on the iPad that behave like a Windows or Mac desktop app. They will work like iPad apps.

Now, I was disappointed by the iPad announcement in one major way. I expected groundbreaking content deals for interactive media. Neat new technologies for reading magazines or multimedia newspapers. But now I’m convinced that Apple did not take that path because it just makes more sense for subscription content providers, like newspaper and magazine publishers, to create their own apps and try their own experiments. Apple has given them the platform, given them the guidelines, given them a UI that gets out of the way, and said, “innovate!” The ones that succeed will be the companies, like the New York Times, that embrace the challenge.

Judge the iPad, not by what you see, but by what you can imagine. If there are over 100,000 apps on the iPhone’s App Store, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that there will be thousands more made just for the iPad. The real wonder and power of the device will come from what those apps let you do.

4 Comments

  1. I disagree with your last point. A larger screen doesn’t enable “thousands more” apps. You’re more likely to see the same apps built in a more resolution independent way.

  2. I only see screen shots, the differing URLs lead me to believe that those are two distinct apps. That said they could very well be the same app with a different view based on the resolution. I don’t see how the second one offers any functionality that the first one couldn’t provide.

  3. I think they’re taking the same direction as Chrome OS (simplify for the smaller form factor! Data in the cloud!) but are doing it by leveraging their existing iPhone technology. I think that’s pretty neat; I’m not nearly as down on the whole thing as everyone else I know seems to be.

    That said… I’m waiting for iPad 2.0 (or at least 1.5) – I’ve been burned by 1st-generation Apple devices enough. On top of that, for at least a few months most of the apps will be either straight iPhone apps enlarged, or marginally fixed up for the larger screen, not rethought for the iPad. Simply designing an iPhone app to be resolution-independent isn’t nearly enough; most apps will require an interface rethinking to really take advantage of the options the extra real estate allows, and that’ll probably take time to get right.

    Eventually I’ll probably get one and use it 95% as an ebook reader — but what I’m most excited about isn’t checking my email on the couch or reading books on the bus, it’s the possibilities for music creation. With a little hardware add-on, this thing could become the best travel four-track recorder for musicians in its price range, and/or the niftiest MIDI control interface in recent history. I mean, slap a few inputs and outputs into the 30-pin jack and you could have a Korg Kaoss Pad no problem.

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