Fri Jan 29 13:14:34 PST 2010

Thoughts on the Apple iPad

Apple has finally announced the tablet computer that people have been begging for over the last few years. But what they've announced isn't exactly what everyone was hoping for-in particular, the iPad doesn't run Mac OS X, but a variant of the iPhone OS. So any iPhone apps you might currently use will run on the iPad, but you aren't going to be running Mathematica, Maple, MATLAB, SAGE, or any other serious math software on the iPad.

On the other hand, the iPad will have versions of Apple's iWork applications-Pages, Numbers, and, most importantly for teaching use, Keynote. And the iPad will support video output to VGA for connecting to projectors (at 1024 x 768 pixels resolution). From video taken by testers, it seems that the iPad version of Keynote will allow users to "draw" on their slides by drawing on the touchscreen with their fingertips. It's not clear at this time whether the iPad version of Keynote will support the presentation mode that you get on a laptop (where the projector/external monitor shows the slides and the laptop's screen shows notes, timing, previous or next slides, or other information).

For text input, the iPad has a on-screen keyboard similar to the keyboard on the iPhone or iPod touch; the keyboard pops up when you select a text-entry field by tapping on it. With the addition of serious word-processing software in the form of Pages, Apple has also decided to allow the use of an actual hardware keyboard, in the form of a special dock with an attached mini Apple keyboard or through the use of a Bluetooth keyboard. In the iPads provided for people at the announcement to try out, keyboard support isn't quite there, but we can presume that Apple will have things working by the time they actually ship.

There is a nice overview, with pictures of various apps, the iPad itself, and some of the accessories at iLounge.


Until the iPad actually ships, it's hard to know exactly what it will and won't support-issues reported today with the samples may disappear by the time you can buy one. But there are some things that lots of people are complaining about that we can be pretty sure won't be addressed by the time the iPad reaches stores, and maybe never will be.


Apple doesn't support Adobe's Flash on the iPhone, and it doesn't look like they'll allow it on the iPad, either. (John Gruber sums up the reasons.) Overall, I'd say no Flash is a good thing-in my experience, Flash is used for three things: (1) embedded video, which can be provided using other formats and in more standards-compliant ways; (2) bits of text set in particular proprietary fonts; and (3) really obnoxious ads. It's also the case that Flash uses vast amounts of system resources, and still performs badly-if I try to watch a Flash video on my 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo machine with 4 GB of RAM, I see stuttering, the machine heats up dramatically, and the fans begin to roar. If the iPad helps kill Flash for video, I'll be thrilled.

iPhone OS and the App Store

As the iPad runs a version of the iPhone OS, it won't run standard Mac OS X applications, only those built specifically for iPhone OS devices. Combine that limitation with the significant hurdles of developing for the iPhone platform (it costs money to be a developer; you need a Mac to do development; Apple's baroque and somewhat unpredictable vetting process), and it's unlikely that a lot of software that's available for free on other systems is going to appear on the iPad.

The positive spin here is that these devices have a radically different interaction model than traditional computers, and that forcing people to "think different" to develop for them seems to have resulted in some amazing applications that not only work well but might not even be possible on other platforms.

Lock-In and DRM

The Defective by Design campaign has pointed out that the digital-rights management (DRM) restrictions built into the iPhone/iPad platform are, in many ways, a threat to open standards and free software. By restricting the software that can be installed on the device to things that pass muster with Apple, Apple is limiting what iPad owners can do with the device they've paid for. There's also likely to be DRM limitations imposed on textbooks and video (as there is using the iTunes Music Store now).

These are complex issues, and ones that don't necessarily matter to most people until they actually find themselves running up against the limits that are in place. For many users, that will never happen, but some will chafe under the limitations.

On the positive side, Apple did fight the good fight with the music industry to eventually push them to support DRM-free music so that all the music Apple now sells in the iTunes Music Store is DRM free (although iTunes and iPods impose some limits on where music can be copied using their interfaces). We can imagine that they might do the same for video and book content.

It's also the case that most "content providers" are more interested in protecting their copyright interests than they are in moving into new markets. Thus providing some sort of DRM system is probably a requirement for getting them to make things available digitally in the first place.

No Handwriting Recognition

Many people were hoping the tablet might be a replacement for the Apple Newton, a handheld computing device that supported many of the functions the iPad does include, but also had a sophisticated handwriting-recognition system. Jobs killed the Newton shortly after returning to Apple, but hope has never died, and continued support for handwriting recognition in Mac OS X (with Ink) has allowed that hope to continue.

Instead, the iPad has what looks to be the same on-screen keyboard as the iPhone and iPod touch, but large enough that it can support touch typing, as well as support for hardware keyboards through a special dock and Bluetooth.

But we can continue to hope....

No Camera

People were really hoping for video chat, and there are various hints left in the OS that suggest that a camera may have been planned, but there was no camera in the versions available for testing.

No Background Apps

Like the iPhone, you get to run one application at a time unless the application takes advantage of the push notification API (or was written by Apple). So if you have a chat client with push, you can do something else and be notified when a new message comes in, and even listen to music at the same time using the bundled iPod app, but if you wanted to read a book and listen to music streamed through Pandora or a similar app, it sounds like you're currently out of luck.

Rumor is that iPhone OS 4.0 might (finally) include background apps, but we won't know for sure until it's released (maybe at the same time as the iPad itself).

Should You Buy One?

The big question, of course, is whether or not you should be interested in an iPad. The answer depends a lot on what you think you might want to do with it.

If you just want a device to watch video, surf the Web, play games, listen to music, and do casual e-mail, then the iPad might be a good choice for you, especially if you don't already have a laptop computer or an iPhone. (The iPad seems like it would be a very nice companion to a desktop machine for someone who doesn't need to do a lot of number crunching on-the-go.)

Similarly, if your class presentations use Keynote (or could use Keynote; note that PDF to Keynote allows you to convert PDF presentations, such as those created with TeX, to Keynote format), then the iPad might work well.

And if you want a device for taking notes, then the iPad might also be okay, so long as you can find an application that will let you do what you need (which might mean using a web-based tool, a note-taking app that stores files as text, or even Pages). If you're hoping to type LaTeX code, you're almost certainly going to want an external keyboard, as the on-screen keyboard makes getting to various punctuation characters used extensively in LaTeX painful.

There's also the promise of textbooks in ePUB format; depending on how pricing works out, it might be cheaper for students to have an iPad (with all the iPod functionality) and electronic textbooks, but I don't think we'll know until after publishers start making textbooks available.

My Take

I already have both a laptop and an iPhone. Most of what I do on computers involves typing shell commands into terminal windows, editing files (HTML, LaTeX, and other text formats) in Emacs, and web browsing. While I can imagine the iPad being nice for reading while walking (much nicer than trying the same thing with a heavy laptop), the number of times that I might want to do such a thing where my iPhone can't cover my needs are few (and the iPad still weighs 1.5 pounds, which is a lot if you're carrying it around with an extended arm). So, for me, I can't quite see the point-I'll be waiting to see what happens a couple of generations down the line. There are some very interesting new user-interface elements and interaction paradigms in use with the iPad that may well feed back into other computing platforms, even desktops or traditional laptops. And it's possible-likely, even-that we'll see additional functionality appear in later versions of the iPad that might make it more attractive to users like me. (In particular, I would like to see handwriting recognition; with that feature, we could see a whole renaissance in handwriting skills!)

Posted by Claire Connelly | Permalink