What’s an iPad?

Wednesday, Apple unveiled its latest feat of engineering… the iPad. While not the most original name they could have given it, it is simple, easy to remember, and sure beats “iTablet”. In a nutshell, it is a device roughly the size of a day planner that you hold in your hands, control with a touch, and use to surf the internet, run apps, display email, calendars, and contacts, store and play music, photos, and videos, and now even digital books (a la Kindle). And it does all of these things like no device has ever done before, is the claim. At first glance it is very impressive. Sleek, with a beautiful touchscreen display, it feels very ergonomic and intuitive for the user, complete with an interface full of slick, eye-candy-like animations and transitions. But it’s not a computer. And for me, that’s the real kicker. I had thought that all the hype surrounding this unveiling was to finally see Apple’s version of the “tablet PC” – a product that has already been released by several PC makers. But alas, it doesn’t run computer software, no disc drive, no USB ports, no way to store and organize files (except maybe within the apps themselves), and no camera even. What we basically have here is a glorified iPhone… and without the phone! (Of course, it’s modeled after the iPhone, and so using the same technologies, its interface seems strikingly familiar. I would’ve thought, though, with the larger screen, they could have squeezed a few more rows and columns of icons onto a single screen… it just looks silly with four columns of tiny app icons all spread out.)

As a graphic designer, I was brimming with curiosity over how the typical mouse controls within design programs such as Adobe Photoshop could possibly translate to a complete touchscreen system. Although you can already buy a sketch tablet to use with Photoshop, what would it feel like to be using your fingers rather than a stylus and touching your actual artwork on the screen rather than out of sight on an externally connected tablet? To me, it would rejuvenate the graphic arts industry by making us feel like true artists again, working with our hands to create work that flows out of us, instead of using a mouse to coldly click and drag. But this still is yet to be, apparently. You have disappointed me, Apple, possibly for the first time.

Another observation I’ve been thinking about is the practicality of such a device as the iPad. Before, when Apple has unveiled its new products, it has changed the landscape of personal technology forever. The products it has introduced to the public have always taken something existing and made it way better. The iPhone brought unimagined (at the time) capabilities to cell phones, ushering in a whole new era of smart-phones. The new MacBook Pros revolutionized the laptop industry, setting the standard for superior engineering and performance. So what does the iPad do? Apple claims it is creating a third category between phones and computers, a category that has never existed before. This is true, but it begs the question, is it a necessary category? Does anyone need to own a device that takes the place of a day planner, DVD player, web browser,  Kindle, and PSP – in other words, the ultimate entertainment machine? Of course, there’s always the “why not?” argument, if you can make a device do all those things, then why not make it? But Apple has always been careful not to get into too niche of a market for its products, and that’s exactly what I feel they have done here. The only people I can see dishing out for an iPad are the wealthy class suburbanites who will opt for one just to up their social standing another notch. It will be the person who was going to buy the Kindle, but for another $250 why not upgrade to an iPad? Or it will be the parents who instead of buying the portable DVD player for the kids in the backseat, will want to keep them thoroughly entertained for just another few hundred dollars. As for me, I just don’t think I can reason why I would need one… at least not like I need a computer or need a phone.

It does, however, beg the question… are the things that we’ve grown so accustomed to in a personal computer OS even necessary any more? For now, the iPad is no MacBook Pro, but as technologies increase and the next generation of iPads line up on the horizon, the line does begin to blur. Perhaps eventually the iPad will forever change how we think of personal computing, rendering current operating systems obsolete. But for the time being, it’s still much too far of a jump from reality.