I Sold the Lousy T-Shirt Off My Back and All I Got Was This iPad

What's Apple's touch tablet actually for?

I Sold the Lousy T-Shirt Off My Back and All I Got Was This iPad

Since the official iPad announcement in January, nearly everyone I've spoken with has a strong opinion on this "magical revolutionary product." Steve Jobs is either saving the world, destroying the world, or condemning it to some kind of Disney-esque wasteland existence with his oversized iPhone. Zut Alors!

For some perspective, let's take a moment to reflect on a similarly polarizing product from the recent past: the Nintendo Wii.

Flashback to late 2006 and Nintendo's new gaming console is eliciting a curiously similar reception. Its detractors claim the name is a marketing disaster, the concept is a cheap gimmick, the device is woefully underpowered, and anyone who decides to purchase it must be a fool. Video game enthusiasts fret that attention from a broader audience will mean the death of the “hardcore” gaming genre (whatever that is), and the industry will run adrift in a sea of Bambi-eyes and fuzzy pastels.

Proponents suggest that the Wii will revolutionize the entire gaming industry. Every subsequent game will be motion-controlled and dissidents are being stubbornly resistant to change as they're wont to do. If Nintendo gets its way, everyone will come over to play virtual tennis and people will pretend to actually like each other again.

In hindsight, most of the above didn't happen. Nintendo's console does have an unusually large number of milquetoast titles, and competitors have announced competing devices, but the sky hasn't fallen. Fifteen-year-old boys are still goring zombies, and the rest of us are still updating Facebook at the bar. Some people watched James Cameron's Avatar and some people didn't. So it goes.

One lingering question in this comparison remains unique to the iPad: what's it for? For those still curious, here are five archetypes that have the potential to benefit most from the iPad, along with some of the apps that make it an enjoyable addition to the long list of devices with which we engage the big bad internet.

  1. The Luddite

    The iPad is perfect for those who are intimidated by or don't require a full-featured operating system. My own parents are an ideal example. They exhibit a sort of rational ignorance towards being online: the perceived benefit of the internet is offset by a dizzying array of alt/command clicks, double-right button clicks, control-alt-deletes, and toolbars with nine menus sporting terminology that means nothing to them.

  2. While the upcoming Google tablet (and the next generation iPad) will presumably offer more horsepower and a greater wealth of options, we arguably don't want more options for this demographic.

    In similar less-is-more fashion, while apps like Epicurious and ABC Player are essentially the web warmed over, the benefit is just that: they're the web. Warmed over.

    A minor caveat on this point: With so many inroads to content (iTunes, YouTube, ABC Player, etc for video alone), the tech-phobic individual may continue to find themselves overwhelmed.

  3. The Student

    One of my neighbors —a mid-twenties grad student— became fairly convinced he would be happy ditching his laptop in favor of an iPad after tinkering around with it for 20 minutes or so. The lighter weight and smaller size appealed to him: less to carry around in every measurable way.

    There are a few potential gaps however: a full-sized keyboard dock is available, but at a prohibitively high price-point ($69), and while the iWork suite does offer Word Processing for writing papers, I've yet to see any serious proposal on how to print from an iPad. As new accessories and apps appear, the iPad may well become a fully-featured netbook replacement for students, but it's not there at present. Bluntly: iPad isn't a laptop. If you need a laptop, you don't need an iPad.

    Looking at mobility, the iPad battery is a potential issue. While it largely performs to Apple's 10 hour claim, the recharge rate is significant. The included cable is the standard length that comes with an iPhone and iPod touch, which makes connection to a floor plug or wall outlet in a coffee shop a bit impractical without an extension cord. These issues aside, the iPad's instant wake-up is great for quickly jotting down notes and ideas throughout the day. Apple has also announced their mobile OS4 (scheduled for release in June for iPod and iPhone, and "fall" for iPad), an upgrade which will provide features that mimic a full-sized operating system (e.g. multitasking). This may prove to be a negative for some students however, as it makes plagiarizing from Wikipedia and SparkNotes that much easier. Oops.

    Numerous reviews complaining about the weight arguably reveal more about technology columnists than the device itself. Curious, I weighed my full cup of coffee on the Chronicle's trusty postal scale— it came in 0.08 pounds heavier than the iPad's 1.5 pounds.

    While its size does make it a bit awkward to carry without a case, that's not the real reason you may want to wait six months before carrying one around campus.

  4. The Musician

    The iPad's faster (1ghz) processor handles audio processing very, very well. Tasks that would cause an iPhone to double as a cigarette lighter run responsively and with no noticeable heat. While the amount of RAM is identical to the iPhone 3GS, I haven't experienced any significant problems with response or latency.

    The real selling point of the iPad however is the larger screen. Many audio apps require quick interaction, particularly if using them in a live performance situation. Having a larger hit-area is potentially the single most important point in the purchasing decision for musicians. With iPad's technical specifications being so close to the current iPhone 3GS, it's entirely probable the new iPhone model (expected to be announced in June) will actually out-power the first generation iPad. If you're fine with the smaller screen size of the phone, you may want to wait it out.

    Regardless, with existing apps including a highly competent sequencer and a wonderfully designed virtual loop pedal replacing far more expensive gear, the iPad and its smaller counterparts are maturing into ideal replacements for many home studio setups. There are also midi and interface controllers available if you have an existing digital recording setup but still want to make use of multitouch features.

    Note: while not all iPod and iPhone accessories are compatible (e.g. the current version of Blue Microphones' Mikey doesn't appear to work), it's likely that accessory manufacturers and app coders alike will be eager to support the more powerful and larger-res hardware available on the iPad.

  5. The Photographer

    Similar argument here: A larger screen and faster guts mean a lot of potential as a portable darkroom. While nearly every review has complained about the iPad's lack of camera (which practically guarantees its appearance in any subsequent version), the optional Camera Connection Kit accessory ($29) provides a way to import photos from your USB camera, much the same as you'd import to a laptop or desktop.

    Sadly, while there are tons of applications in the photography category, none particularly stand out as an all-in-one solution for photo-editing, and even fewer are native to the iPad. While it's a great fit for parents looking to give family photos that extra something and quickly upload and share them, the lack of a killer, pro-level app is a barrier to entry for pros and semipros. Another potential use we'd like to see that isn't there yet: tethering to a dSLR for larger previews.

    Whether a streamlined version of a photo-editing suite like Apple's Aperture will be made available in the future is entirely speculative. iPad is presently being marketed as a passive, media consumption device rather than a creative tool, which is the one utility that makes it great for high-budget pro and semipro photographers alike. Specifically, it's the ideal presentation device to have in your showroom for potential clients. As the platform matures, additional uses will become icing on the wedding cake.

  6. The Developer

    The iPad is marketed as a new category of device, but it's really just the latest in an existing device family. The iPhone, iPad and iPod touch are relatively the same device, trading specific features and specs where needed. There's little effort required to port code to any of the other devices available, which makes it easy for a developer to target all of the iSomething demographics with minimal overhead. While other platforms are debatably cheaper to develop for, the rumored Android and Microsoft tablets aren't here yet. If you want to develop for touch screen devices (for yourself or for profit) Apple currently has the widest array of moderately-priced options to choose from.

    It should be noted lastly that all of these observations are regarding the 16GB entry level model ($499), particularly for the developer market. With network storage being relatively inexpensive, and satellite providers increasingly offering satellite-to-Wifi receivers[1], paying more than $500 for satellite access and additional storage seems unnecessary. Apps like Air Sharing and Air Video are great for hooking the iPad into your existing media.

So … should I get one?

At its best, the iPad is a great laptop replacement for people who don't require much from a personal computer. It's also a competent sidekick for many types of professionals. As touch-devices come down in price, watch for them to appear in the hands of doctors, lawyers, telcom workers, and near anyone who requires a streamlined portable device.

Despite the high anticipation leading up to the announcement of the iPad, what's truly surprising isn't the device itself, but the antipathy with which it was met. Comedian Louis CK sums up the sentiment best: "Everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy."

That said, for a marketing department that hits home run after home run, none of the terms Apple has used to describe the device (revolutionary, new, unbelievably priced) seem to ring true – indicating Apple itself isn't entirely sure what the iPad is for.

As for concerns about Apple censoring iBooks and removing apps from the store carte blanche, the issue seems to be that Apple will one day control everything (see Daily Show clip below). To which I can only offer the rebuttal: On the internet, someone is always ruining the internet (separate links).

[1] The link to the Sprint Overdrive service is to illustrate the point. It's not an endorsement – we haven't tried it. Drop us a note if you have.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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