Remembrance of Computers Past

Looking back at the rest of Apple’s product line helps explain why people think the iPad is such a big deal. Also, kind of a review.

iPadHello.jpgOut of all the billions of articles that have been written about the iPad over the past few weeks — previews, reviews, essays, tirades, counter-tirades, hands-ons, first impressions, updates, and general grousing — the best is still Stephen Fry’s article for Time magazine. Fry’s an unabashed Apple fanboy, but the article does exactly what it needs to: explain why this is such a big deal to some people. And it gets rid of the white background and just asks the Apple guys directly, “What’s so great about this thing, anyway?”

Not that they gave a compelling answer, but it was still nice of him to ask. And he didn’t really need to, anyway, because Fry covered that himself. The best part of the article is when he describes his and Douglas Adams’s excitement over the original Mac:

Goodbye, glowing green command line; hello, mouse, icons and graphical desktop with white screen, closable windows and menus that dropped down like roller blinds.
[…] I would pant excitedly. Douglas’ wife Jane would point with resigned amusement to the stairs, and I would hurl myself up them to swap files and play. We were like children with toy train sets. And that was part of the problem. It was such fun. Computing was not supposed to be fun.

Douglas Adams’s enthusiasm for the Mac was pernicious and infectious. It’s been about 20 years (!) since I read the Dirk Gently books, but I can still remember the frontispiece of each one explaining how it was written on a Mac, listing the software used. And I can vaguely remember a long passage in one of the books describing a character using a Mac, written to make it sound as wondrous as any of the more fantastic elements of the book.

So Long, and Thanks For All the PICTs

I don’t know for sure whether reading those books is what set me on the course to Mac fanaticism, but whatever started it, I was hooked. I would buy issues of MacUserjust for the pictures. Everything seemed so much cooler on a Mac; the control panel had a picture of a rabbit and a turtle to set your keyboard speed, and even the error messages had pictures!

When I finally got a Mac Plus as a graduation present (that my parents couldn’t quite afford, but knew how much I wanted it, presumably because I wouldn’t shut up about it), I loved it. Doing even the simplest things was more fun, and I saw nothing but limitless potential in the computer because it was so enjoyable to use.

It didn’t quite “exceed my capacity to understand it,” and it definitely didn’t “just work.” The Mac OS had already outpaced my system’s memory, so it was constantly spitting out disks and asking me to insert a new one. (The sound of the Mac ejecting a disk probably haunted my college roommates for years). Even my Commodore 128 had color, but the Mac was still low-resolutely black and white. Back then, the Outsiders would make complaints that sound hauntingly familiar today: “You can’t open it.” “It’s a toy computer.” “There’s not enough software for it.” “You could get a much more powerful machine at that price.” I eventually fell for that, and “upgraded” to a machine that I liked just fine. But I never loved a computer like that one.


And nostalgia couldn’t possibly be driving all of the hype around the iPad, but I do believe that the idea of the first Macintosh is a huge part of it, even for people who never owned one. And I believe the iPad is the closest Apple has come to realizing that philosophy since the first Mac.

After all, Windows may have copied the “look and feel” of the Mac, but it never quite got its soul. It wasn’t even until Windows 95 that they managed to get a consistent, unified personality at all. But you can’t blame Microsoft too much, since Apple lost it as well. As the personal computer got to be more ubiquitous and more general-purpose, it somehow got less personal. It got more functional, but less fun.

Using an iPad, I don’t just feel like I’m in the future, as I expected to. The part in that Time article that resonated the most with me was when Fry laments that Adams never got to see his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made real. Every new “mobile device” I’ve tried out, back to the original PalmPilot, I’ve subjected to the Hitchhiker’s Guide test. The iPad comes closer than any I’ve seen, it’d probably be even more uncanny if I’d gotten the 3G model. But more than that, I’m reminded of using my first Mac.

The iPad is obviously a direct descendent of the iPhone and the iPad, and it’s being described by tech writers and by Apple both as being a reaction to netbooks. But I believe you can trace the idea behind it all the way back to the Mac Plus.

The form factor is that of a magazine, sure, but it has a hint of the original Mac in there as well: just the screen when held horizontally, and the whole thing when in portrait mode. You can’t open it, but it doesn’t even seem like something you’d want to open: it feels like any time you’d spend configuring it is time that’d be better spent using it.

It’s got a few of the standby apps already installed and ready to go. MacWrite is no longer free, and it’s called Pages now, but it’s there if you need it. MacPaint has been made obsolete by digital photography, apparently, and the spreadsheet in AppleWorks now goes by the name Numbers. The desktop is still the realm of powerhouse applications with tons of features, but the iPad can comfortably support powerful apps that are simpler, more accessible, and more fun to use.

Blank Slate

And that simplicity really seems to piss people off. You can kind of see where the “revolutionary” marketing claim is coming from when you see so many people getting up in arms over the iPad’s mere existence. It’s been walled off and dumbed down by a control freak tyrant with a pathological hatred of buttons. At best, Apple is overstepping its bounds by trying to protect you from yourself; at worst, they’re profiting off of your gullibility.

Except that the simplicity is part of the appeal of the thing. I don’t want the stuff that it doesn’t do; I want the stuff that it does. Or even better, the stuff that it will do.

When somebody complains about the lack of USB ports, or a keyboard, or even a camera, they’re looking at the screen. When somebody complains about the scaled-down apps, or the use of a mobile OS instead of a laptop OS, they’re looking at what’s on the screen. But when somebody says that the iPad could start to change how we use computers — for better or for worse — they’re looking at what could be on the screen.

Even the first version of the iPhone was a big step up from anything I’d used before. It was a phone that let me browse the web and check my e-mail — the Treo did that too, but not as well. Apple’s always been about the unified experience, from hardware to system software to application software, and doing the same stuff on the iPhone was just more enjoyable.

A year later, when the SDK was released and the apps started rolling in, it was like getting a whole new device. Suddenly the phone became useful — essential, actually — for all kinds of things I’d never imagined doing with a phone.

You don’t have to be particularly prescient to see the same thing happening with the iPad, but on a larger scale. As it stands on release, it’s an excellent web browser, book reader, and media player. (And, as it turns out, the best possible platform for Plants vs. Zombies). There’s a very nice painting program (SketchBook Pro), and a capable word processor (Pages, which I’m using right now), but it’s still best at consuming media, as a lot of people — including me — predicted.

Where it goes in the future is nearly impossible to predict, and that’s the best part of it. And we probably won’t have to wait a year to start seeing the killer apps roll in this time.

Sub-Laptop of Luxury

As it stands now, it’s definitely a version 1.0, as expected. Some of the improvements, like a camera, are obvious, while the others will reveal themselves over time. I’m very anxious to hear what changes they’ve got in store with the iPhone OS 4 announcement this week, because it could have a huge impact on how useful the iPad is.

I can’t imagine anyone actually needing one of these things, except in very special cases, or for development. The closest you could come to justifying the device is that it replaces a lot of other devices — it’s excellent at playing video, it’s a good portable game machine, it’s a fine e-book reader, good mobile web browser, and phenomenal for reading comic books.

Video: I was just watching this week’s episode of “Castle” on my TV, and brought it up on the ABC app as well, just for kicks. I kept getting drawn to the version playing on the iPad, because the picture was sharper. The Netflix app also has almost-too-good-to-be-streaming video quality, which makes up for the fact that the rest of the interface is just a web browser pointed to Netflix’s standard queue interface.

Screen: it’s every bit as good as the initial reports. And the only place I’ve used a touch screen that was as well implemented and responsive was on the iPhone. I’ll be looking at the reports of the HP Slate and other competing tablets, but I’m highly skeptical that they’re going to deliver a touchscreen as good as the iPad’s for a similar price point. (At least, if the TouchSmart tm2’s performance was any indication).

Operating System: I’m still in the iPhone OS camp, and I think that the simplicity of a mobile device OS, instead of a desktop or laptop OS shoehorned onto under-powered equipment, was the way to go. But I’ve already run into frustrations. The file handling in particular needs to be reworked. There needs to be a better way to share documents between apps, and to get them to and from the desktop.

Drawing: I picked up a Pogo Sketch stylus, and it actually works better than I thought it would. The iPad version of SketchBook Pro is very, very good even if you’re finger-painting; the stylus feels even more natural. This is still a screen designed for touch, though, so there’s not enough precision to do detailed drawing, and it’s a little difficult to get multiple strokes to line up exactly. It’s definitely not a Wacom tablet, and real artists would likely get frustrated with it more quickly than I did. For sketching, though, it’s more capable than I ever expected.

Cases: I got Apple’s overpriced case, and I’m already regretting it. I wanted it more as a prop than as protection, and I think I would’ve been better off spending that money on a dock. Or, you know, a couple of books or a piece of wood to prop it up.

Reading: Both Apple’s iBooks app and the Amazon Kindle app are excellent. I’d expected to clearly like one or the other, but there’s no clear winner. (Except for you, the consumer). iBooks has little flourishes like the page turn animation, and yes, the little flourishes are important because they’re part of what defines the personality of the machine. Kindle’s front-end is also great, and while buying a Kindle book launches the amazon web page instead of including a slick store UI, it’s important to remember that Amazon knows exactly how to design a web page for retail. The biggest difference is that Kindle books you can read on just about any device, but books bought with iBooks are currently restricted to just the iPad.

Web Pages: Safari has never been my browser of choice, so readjusting to it on the iPad feels a little clumsy and limiting. Doing an import of all my auto-fill data, passwords, and bookmarks into Safari before synching the iPad would probably have been a better idea. Plus, while the iPhone OS is designed for touch input, most web pages still aren’t. It feels a little clumsy having to scale pages up just so that you can tap on smaller links. (And for the record, I have yet to run into anything that required Flash).

Web Apps: That said, I predict that the bar for apps on the iPad will be set much higher than for the iPhone. On the iPhone, anybody with a web page felt obliged to put out an app. On the iPad, most of those will feel superfluous. I haven’t missed the lack of a Facebook client at all, for example; I can just go to the website if I feel like it, for some reason.

Annoyances, Keyboard version: My biggest annoyance so far is that the iPad refuses to bring up the on-screen keyboard if you’re using a wireless keyboard. Sometimes you just want to enter a single word, or type a single letter, and having to tap the screen, go back to the keyboard, and tap the screen again just makes you wish you could go back to having a mouse.

Annoyances, File version: I mentioned it earlier, but the file system is one of the things I really hope they address with the new OS. Document handling within an app is done well and feels natural, but there needs to be a better way to share documents between apps and also between the iPad and the “home” computer.

Replacement Laptop: The iPad is clearly not intended to replace your existing computer, but to be an extension of it. You can’t even start using it without synching it with iTunes first. It makes all the complaints about discouraging kids from learning to program, or about the iPad ushering in a dark new age of computing, seem even more silly. You’re still going to have to own a computer on which you can program and you can install whatever you want.

It’s still odd to me that I’m no longer as much of an aberration, that many people own multiple computers, enough that there’s a whole market for a device that extends your existing setup instead of replacing it. We’re going back to the days of terminals, apparently: even in the home, there’ll be a central server, and everyone will have a magic screen that holds a subset of the stuff on that server.

Finally: I’m really impressed with the iPad, and I’ve been surprised by it more than a few times. I’m more enamored with the potential of it than the current reality, though — for now, it’s very, very nice at what it does, but by no means essential. Anybody on the fence, I’d definitely recommend waiting for version 2.0 (and checking out the competition from Lenovo, HP, and eventually, Google) before buying one.

And if you’re on the fence, I’d definitely recommend you avoid getting a hands-on demo from a friend or at the Apple Store. Because it makes one hell of a first impression, and you might find yourself paying for one before you’ve figured out what it is, exactly, you need it for.