Letdown. Disappointment. Anticlimax. These words have appeared in nearly all the first articles written about the newly unveiled Apple iPad, barely a day old in the world. The reasons are not entirely important in the long run, but many of these stories themselves will admit that expectations were raised beyond reasonable levels, that Apple had no hope of impressing everyone the way they did in 2007 with the first iPhone. This environment of fanciful conjecture and presumptuous theorizing was the result of an industry’s decade-long fascination with getting the idea of a tablet computer to stick – seemingly against the wishes of the consumers meant to buy them – and the belief that Apple can succeed where other companies embarrass themselves. They’ve done it before, after all.
It never helps that Apple says very little about what it’s got until it’s got it. The veil of secrecy provides theatrical levels of entertainment at every event; charged affairs where people whoop and whistle from the moment Jobs takes the stage. As press conferences go, they overdeliver. But on the eve of events as the iPad’s debut, such enthusiasm cuts both ways, and the company is left with the unenviable task of managing expectations without any direct communication – a task that has become increasingly hard over the past few years.
In the beginning, Macs were a relatively quiet business; high profile products that most people saw but never considered owning. The success of the iPod energized Apple’s public image, and eventually sensational moves like the decision to cancel its hottest product, the iPod mini, in favor of an impossibly innovative new replacement, raised the bar not only for its hapless competitors, but for the company itself. Even then, the shifts from small to smaller iPods with color screens where black and white displays were once standard, were no indication of the iPhone’s shape or form before January 2007. That device’s unprecedented introduction, so many orders of magnitude beyond what had been expected of Apple (a phone that played music, and that wasn’t as ugly or challenged as the Motorola ROKR, would have sufficed for many), changed the pre-event guessing game forever. Do one magic trick, and you’re always going to be asked for more.
Consider that at the time of the iPhone’s release, touchscreens were not a new technology. Palm’s PDAs and countless phones running Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system had touchscreens for years, and were fairly well liked. Yet as the tech world watched Steve Jobs scroll a contact list with a flick of his finger, it was impossible to make the connection between that and the experience we had become accustomed to. The older technology, resistive touchscreens, required styluses or fingernails, with scrolling conducted with bars that were clicked and dragged. A series of small innovations (capacitive touchscreens, direct contact momentum scrolling, and a smoothly-animated graphical interface) combined to redefine the way we expect to interact with handheld computers today. It’s a classic Apple play: refine existing technologies, add advancements in software, and produce an entirely new class of product.
Given the rise of ebook readers like the Kindle, and the continuing efforts of PC makers to fashion smaller and cheaper computers from low-power CPUs like Intel’s Atom, it was only natural to think that Apple would soon do the same for the popular netbook category or a tablet*. It would be another game changer equal to or greater than the iPhone, we began to hear. In the days leading up to January 27, a quote attributed to Steve Jobs was circulated, to the effect that the tablet would become his greatest achievement. John Gruber of the Daring Fireball blog predicted that Apple was ‘swinging big’ with a new product that one would buy instead of a laptop. Others dreamt of new multi-touch interfaces that would further bury Microsoft’s second stab at tablet computer, shown to be an HP “slate” running Windows 7 without any modifications that might make operation with a finger possible in lieu of a mouse. In all fairness, many of these outsized rumors were based on the presumption that the tablet would cost up to USD$1000. What could possibly cost that much, close to a full computer, except a full computer? It would be ironic if the thousand-dollar figure was leaked by Apple to increase the impact of the final $499 price point, only to backfire by raising expectations.
These pre-announcement assumptions by enthusiasts and tech writers are now par for the course, as are the disappointments that follow each new product revelation. The iPhone 3G largely met expectations because it corrected the one deficiency that kept the original iPhone from greatness**: the speed at which it accessed the internet. It also coincided with the opening of the platform with the iPhone SDK, which led to the app-happy state of affairs we now enjoy. Regardless, complaints about the low resolution camera, unremovable battery, etc. continued to get a public airing.
Last year’s iPhone 3GS was roundly criticized for being an unexciting upgrade, retaining the same looks as its predecessor with little more than a megapixel and speed bump, effectively delivering the previous year’s expected iPhone but late. It went on to become a huge success. The buying public is immune to disappointment, it seems, perhaps because they don’t read blogs that sell them pipe dreams.
The iPhone 3GS announcement, and the internet’s lukewarm reactions to it, would be a good analogy for what’s happening with the iPad, except nobody hoped for the next iPhone to summarize a decade of engineering efforts. Like the iPhone 3GS, the iPad initially appears to be an evolutionary product, being based on existing technology Apple has repeatedly shown in public. It’s faster and more powerful, but not radically different from known territory. At first sight, it’s hard to imagine what the changes mean in actual use. You might think you can live with the old model and how things used to be. That’s a shame.
Apple is positioning the iPad as a third pillar in their portable product lineup: more than a smartphone, less than a laptop, yet better at some things than either of the other two. This instantly invalidates the idea of buying one “instead of a laptop”. Clearly you are meant to have both. It syncs with a Mac or PC the same way an iPhone or iPod does. It’s a secondary computer, but it’s also an appliance (see Farhad Manjoo’s articles on Slate.com – here and here).
It sends email, it plays games, and it will be fantastic for Twitter, but in my opinion, the iPad in its current form holds the most value as an interactive document, or to use a term repeated many times last night, an ‘intimate’ way of experiencing media. Despite having no plans to purchase a Kindle DX or similar reader I suspect that I will fall in love with the thing the moment I hold a book-sized slice of full-color webpage in my hands. As Manjoo writes, “Everything about it—its size, shape, weight, and fantastically intuitive user interface—feels just right.”
With the first iPhone, Apple understood that touch interfaces are an emotional experience. Pressing the pad of your finger to a virtual page (in Eucalyptus, for example) and turning it fools some part of the brain that isn’t dedicated to understanding a screen is not the same thing as paper. It’s satisfying, even though a facsimile of a real experience. It’s more realistic than using a fingernail, which one never applies to a real page, and more personal than a stylus. My guess is that if capacitive touch of that quality wasn’t available, the iPhone project would never have gotten the green light.
I submit that the iPad takes one more step towards solidifying the illusion of digital media with real, physical presence. It’s not just a bigger iPhone, it’s an iPhone big enough to pass for a printed page and fool your mind. A frame that holds websites with long-form writing, augmented with video and animation, that we can hold lazily, effortlessly, in our hands or laps like the glossy magazines or newspapers they approximate, is nothing short of magical, to borrow another marketing word. If the iPad became transparent like a slab of glass when turned off, wouldn’t be exactly like the science fiction movie ideal of a portable computer? Don’t you want to live in the future? I say use your imagination.
And yet more frustration sprang from the absence of anticipated features, some of which are explained by the iPad’s positioning as a third pillar, while others invite more guesswork and predictions. Q. Why doesn’t it have a camera? A. It’s not for photography, and videoconferencing is the realm of a phone. Q. Why doesn’t it have USB ports/connect to an iPhone for syncing and tethering? A. It’s not a primary computer. Q. Where’s the multitasking and improved notifications? A. iPhone 4.0?
I believed that an update to the current iPhone OS, version 3.2, would be announced during yesterday’s event, which didn’t happen. As we know, the iPad runs a version of the OS with this number, but for the next 60 days it’s not something you can buy. That gives a 60-day window to expect iPhone OS 3.2 to be released for existing iPhone users. Will this bring some of the iPad’s new features to the iPhone, like the iBooks reader and iBookstore? My guess is no. These will remain exclusive iPad features for the time-being. In that case, iPhone OS 3.2 might only bring a few bugfixes and trivial UI enhancements. I believe Apple is already looking ahead to iPhone OS 4.0, to be announced in the March-May window, and released in concert with the next iPhone model. Improved notifications are a must, and I’m fairly confident they will be present.
The other concern, third-party app multitasking, is far and away the number one demanded feature for the iPhone OS amongst people I know, but I’m becoming ever more skeptical that it will materialize. Apple has invested heavily in push notifications as an alternative, too much for it to be merely a stopgap measure. With the iPad, which Apple is attempting to push as a viable machine for occasional work (more than a smartphone, less than a laptop), the lack of multitasking is even more apparent. If I’m writing a document in Pages and need to move back and forth quickly between a website, email, and a notes app from which I might want to copy information, iPhone OS 3.x requires me to switch in and out of the Home Screen each time, closing and reopening the apps.
The non-multitasking answer? Persistence and a quick launcher. iPhone OS 4.0 could enable a system-wide method for saving an app’s state (what you’re doing in it) when you quit, and having it restore upon the next launch. And according to Gruber, everyone who’s laid hands on it agrees the iPad and its new A4 processor are incredibly fast. Add that combination to a home button double-click that pops up a list of your last five apps, and you’re effectively alt-tabbing between running applications without the battery drain.
iPhone OS 4.0 will be a big deal when announced, whatever it actually does, and Apple understandably couldn’t show its features yesterday as part of the iPad. But because they share the same OS, it stands to reason that whatever the iPhone gains from here on out will also be on the iPad. Being that the iPhone is incredibly important to Apple and already accounts for 32% of smartphone profits worldwide while receiving rapid software development both from within the company and out, it’s inevitable that the iPad’s image will soon evolve beyond that of an underwhelming giant iPod touch.
* Legend has it that research for a “Safari Pad” tablet wound up becoming the basis of the iPhone, so it’s possible that the universe is completely backward.
** It’s worth noting that the original iPhone was also criticized for its camera, built-in battery, price, and not supporting third-party applications, Java, Microsoft Exchange, MMS, copy and paste, etc. despite being ridiculously ahead of the pack in terms of miniaturization, engineering, web browsing, media playback, and user experience. After three years, competitors have yet to match the software or browsing. Someday, the iPad’s reception will probably be remembered in a similar way.