Friday, January 29, 2010

The Obligatory iPad Post

I wasn’t going to write anything about the iPad. I spent the afternoon of the launch watching a 5 hour Webcast about the Oracle acquisition of Sun closing. And then I needed to file a piece with CNET. So, while I more or less followed the iPad details via twitter, I had neither the time nor especially the interest to do a serious write-up with so much other punditry already out there.

But I’ve been getting the usual stream of questions from friends and family so I’m going to put down a few thoughts to avoid answering the same thing over and over again. Take these in the vein of observations and preliminary assessments based on how I would probably want to use such a device. I have no interest in whether you buy one or not. As IBM’s Bob Sutor pus it: “No one is forcing anyone to get an iPad. If you don't want or need one, don't get one. Pretty simple, no?”

Price. This may have been the biggest upside surprise of the announcement—both the purchase price and the price for no-contract 3G networking: “Starting at $499.” That said, the sweet spot is probably the 32GB model with 3G at that’s $729 (or add another $100) for 64GB. Now add $29/month for unlimited data 3G networking and we’re up up a 2 year cost-of-ownership of over $1,400.

Screen. It’s LCD and to reiterate what I wrote recently: “Current LCD technology may serve for some first-generation devices but it draws too much power and you can’t read it easily in sunlight. E-paper on the other hand is currently black-and-white and is only suited for images (such as text pages) that aren’t changing quickly. This limitations lead to rather silly devices like this. There is lots of interesting work going on by companies such as Pixel Qi and Qualcomm (mirasol)—expect to see interesting demos at CES—but actual product is in the future.” An LCD display isn’t bad per se, but I think we need to get beyond them for a truly compelling device in this form factor. Apple is essentially beholden to the technology that’s available and it’s no easy problem for a multi-use device. The needs of games and video are much different from the needs of books.

Touch screen. As just about everyone expected, the iPad uses a capacitive multi-touch display. In other words, you use your fingers. This is what just about everyone expected; it’s basically a big iPhone or iPod Touch. That’s fine but it means that you can’t write on the screen with a stylus as you do with a resistive touch screen. Now, with this size of screen, applications that let you write with your finger may be practical for serious note taking. I’d have to try it and see. Dan Bricklin (yes, that Dan Bricklin) has a nifty app in this vein for the iPhone.

No camera. A no op as far as I’m concerned. Everyone has (a mediocre) one in their phone already. And how many people really use video chat—leaving aside the ergonomic issues associated with using one for that purpose in a tablet?

Locked down operating system with app store. I don’t have a particular issue with this so long as the apps I need are available. The lack of Flash in a browser is a serious limitation today; you have to have a high-fidelity browser experience in a device basically designed for browsing. So is the lack of multitasking which doesn’t bother me much in my iPhone but seems more problematic in a bigger device. I expect the more serious limitations to get resolved over time. Ultimately if you want a general purpose operating system, this won’t be the choice for you.

Real-world battery life. TBD. I suspect it won’t be as good as I would like; no portable gadget with an LCD screen has good enough battery life.

For the record, I’m a big believer in this category of device. But some of the technology isn’t really there yet. And there are certainly other gadgets, such as a micro 4/3 camera system, in the $1400 price range I would like but haven’t been able to justify the cost. Furthermore, as Tim Bray has noted, this isn’t really something that people can use to create content. Yet much of my day is spent writing and other such tasks, so I’m not sure in how many circumstances I could dump my laptop and take one of these with me instead.

Different people have different needs and will make different tradeoffs. If you routinely carry a laptop that you use mostly for browsing, reading, lightweight social media, and so forth this could be very attractive even in its current form.

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