So. The iThing is a Pad

The Tech Media check out the iPad at Apples Event - Photo: c|Net

The Tech Media geek out over the iPad at Apple's Event - Photo c|Net

So, actually taking a moment from my labours to toss of a few thoughts about Apple’s latest foray into the world of cutting edge consumer computing. Rumors and hype over Apple’s tablet computer fried up the wires on the Intertubez for months, inflaming the hopes and opinions of technogeeks worldwide. Since I am currently the President of the local Macintosh User Group , which is more a function of not dodging fast enough than any particular sterling quality on my part, I am expected to know at least a thing or two about most things Mac. So I took in the Apple Event keynote via the live blog and later watched Steve’s keynote at our monthly SIG meeting. I am as I start to scribble this, in the waiting area of the Physical Therapy office during my wife’s PT session, a result of a dislocated shoulder in October, part of the reason for the slack in posts. Been a little busy! More on this later.

Anyway, the iPad, not the iSlate, iTablet, or iSlab or such… is actually a pretty impressive little box.  The name is a little unfortunate, but Apple leans obsessively towards the simple. As many expected, and partially leaked, the iPad is much more a large iPhone/iPod Touch as opposed to a touch enabled MacBook. Not all the tech literate are thrilled about that, but it’s consistent with Apple’s current approach to their market, audience and product strategy. As a touch powered laptop, so not happening, but as an iPhone on steroids, pretty damn spiffy. And it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun to play with.

Now let me get right up front about this thing right off. Apple didn’t make the iPad for me, or for most of the likely audience of this blog for that matter. I am a Power User by most standards, a Graphic Designer, a Creative Professional. And the iPad was not made for us. This is, to it’s last transistor, gutz to glory, a CONSUMER device, aimed squarely at the media-consuming center of the casual computing market.

The iPad is optimized to excel at the majority of the general purpose recreational and media leaning uses of regular people: surfing the web,  fetching e-mail, listening to music, watching videos, reading e-books, playing games, and running small specific purpose apps. I’d call them widgets, but some of then are really quite sophisticated. With more screen real estate for both applications and the touch interface, many of the things that make the iPhone and iPod Touch so compelling are magnified and enhanced. It makes a rather nice screen reader, video player, music player, web surfboard and email terminal. The large 9.7 inch [check screen size] screen when turned to horizontal format, provides a nearly standard size touch keyboard. I’d like to try that out. One of the most vocal and hostile criticisms of the iPhone/Touch is that the tiny touch keyboard was a very … less-than-keyboard experience. But on the other hand, being a grown up male with full size hands, the average smartphone keyboard with their tic-tac sized keys, still seems made for hamsters to my bear paws, and I am hardly Andre the Giant.

So as a media machine, the iPad shines. Apple has also made a number of initiatives into e-media, leveraging the iTunes and App Store experiences, adding an iBookstore and a number of partners in book publishing.

My thoughts are informed by my realtime experience at this very moment, typing on a MacBook Pro waiting for my wife at the Physical Therapy office. There is no public wi-fi access at this location. I honestly have no idea if there is 3G coverage at this location. But without wireless internet access, 85% of the intended functionality of the device is neutralized. Like my MacBook, I would be limited to the resources stored on my device. Also, I am of course, using a standard physical keyboard. On a touch device, there would be no tactile feedback, just a smooth surface.  So all you touch typists, take note.

But I do have some casual observations. Impressed, yes. Blown away? No, not really.

For openers, the hype was just INSANE, and people were expecting DAS ÜBER TABLET… that can do ANYTHING… and give you oral sex, with unlimited battery life. I also noted the things left out that were not really technical hurdles, but CHOICES by Apple. No Camera, no USB connectivity, no wired data transfer options. And still, infuriatingly, no Flash Player – which is 75% if the Video Content on the Web. But having followed other Apple product cycles, this gives them room to add goodies in further generations.

Been there. And if you’ve been following the iPhone upgrades, or perhaps own an earlier-gen model– you have, too. And apparently the frame already has the receptacle to accommodate a camera similar to those on the MacBooks and iPhone. Patience, grasshopper.

I DO have an issue with the Apple tagline for the device. “Our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.” As a device, once stripped of hype. Not bad. Magical? STOP THAT. It’s SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY . I swear I could hear Authur C. Clarke whispering from the grave, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic.” To a drooling Cro-magnon emerging from his damp and dusty cave, sure. But we’re grown up adults in a technological age, damn it. I may not be able to BUILD the circuit board in my computer, but I have a pretty good general idea, both physics and mechanically, how the thing WORKS.

But this kind of glassy-eyed Apple-speak really shows up in the Apple iPad introduction video. Reality Distortion Field? Cupertino Kool-Aid? While I collected my thoughts, one of my Artistic Colleagues, Jamie Noguchi at Angry Zen Master expressed some thoughts on the matter.

“Wow, those fuckers scare me. The blank, glassy look in their eyes indicates that some people have been sucking on a very special blend of the Apple Kool-Aid (TM). There’s no wrong way to hold it. It’s the greatest thing we’ve ever seen ever. It will revolutionize the way we touch things. Creepy.” –The iMaxi and its Heavy Flow of Hype

Not too unexpectedly, the iPad is, as has been noted all over the web, kind of an  “iPod Touch Extreme” with a big, but good looking, screen. It’s more in line with the idea of an “information appliance” than a proper computer and Apple intends it to be so. This is emphasized by their choice of an expanded iPhone OS vs a compacted OS X. It also provides the media control that Steve Jobs and Apple craves. Yes, perceived if not actual shortcoming, along with their choice of non-Flash support. I am a Graphic and Web Designer… and I don’t see the Brushes app replacing Photoshop anytime soon, or the rest of Creative Suite running on the iPhone OS. I am a creative pro, so when I use a computer professionally, I need the firepower of a full fledged computer.

Sure I like to listen to music, browse the web, get my news, read webcomics, do email, watch a video (Hellooooo FLASH…), cruise blogs, sort photos, play a game, or jot a not. But I also need the rest of the computing muscles to do what I DO for a living. For me this thing in it’s present form would be a purely recreational device. But for the audience that Apple is pitching to, what it does is fine. The stuff I mentioned is what pretty much 90% of casual computer users do with 90% of their time.

Of course, the Creative Pro market, that kept Apple alive, and fell in love with the company is no longer a market Apple is actively cultivating. I won’t even set foot in an Apple store from October first through the holidays, when the place becomes iPod and iPhone Central, and there may be one lonely Mac Pro running in the corner, and not much in the way of pro gear in the shop. Jamie has more to say about that, and says it more eloquently than me…

“What does the iPad mean for us digital art professionals? Not a whole damn lot. As much of a fanboy of Apple products as I am, I still feel like the bastard child that they eventually grew to ignore. Time was you couldn’t do any digital art without using an Apple product. Macs were the ubiquitous standard for power users like digital artists. And then, nothing. We’ve been kicked to the curb. We are no longer cultivated as an elite clientele that Apple took pride in winning. They just don’t give two craps about us. Part of that probably has to do with economics. Once an artist finds a tool they like, they are likely to stick with it for decades. [Guilty. I’m a fairly working class art guy and running a used G5 in the Studio ] We don’t buy new shit just because it’s new. We run the old workhorse into the ground and then keep kicking it to get every last bit of work we can before we finally relent and upgrade. We’re horrible clients in a business that depends on people buying the new thing as soon as it drops. I get it. I understand why Apple doesn’t pay attention to us. But that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Yo. Brotha’. *gangsign* Word.

Actually iPad is a ironic name. Like a sketch pad, fine to jot, scribble or sketch on. Be that as it may, as a graphic and web designer, I can say that while Brushes is a clever App, it is no Adobe Photoshop, and Pages is not InDesign. I can, and often do, sketch out ideas in my sketchbook. But I am NOT going to try to design, lay out, typeset, color separate, and prepress a 60-page annual Report on a Sketch Pad. For that I need to fire up my G5 or the MacBook Pro if I am going mobile.

But of course who knows what the clever codeheads out there building apps for the iPhone, Touch, and now the iPad will come up with. They will most certainly surprise us with some very creative and unexpected things. I am also realistic enough to know that not all of the 140,000 apps in the App Store are gems, either. Caveat emptor, folks. But I know very well that Content is King. It will be the availability of various media, publications, and the full ‘Net experience, and the creativity and usefulness of the Apps on the iPad that will determine the success of the device, despite the constrains of working through Apple’s business model and distribution method.

But talking to some people, online and in casual conversations, a couple of areas where a good, simple, intuitive tablet could make a major difference turned up. As the parent of a Special Needs child, I have been in contact with the Special Needs education community for some time. Shortly after the iPad’s introduction, it occurred to me that the device would be a marvelous education tool despite it’s price point, and real and perceived shortcomings.

Even for regular students, the idea of getting the twenty pounds plus of textbooks into a single one pound device is compelling. When I attended Pratt, I dreaded Art History, mostly for the need to haul the fifteen pound tome, Gardner’s History of Art, that laughed at the wimpiness of phone books. Janson’s Art History was even heftier.

Okay. Now some of the nits to pick. Some of this is wish list stuff. Some is “WTF, Steve?”

Like many artists, I’d like pressure sensitivity. I live by my Wacom tablets, without them I’d likely be in casts up to my frakkin’ elbows from carpal tunnel. But this is a technical issue, not a design choice from Apple.

Not a lot of noise and thunder has been made over the omission of Flash support. After all, 75% of the Web’s Video content. Not to mention games, e-commerce interfaces, most media sites, many site interfaces, and some entire sites. YouTube only works due to a custom app for the iPhone. It’s hard to imagine the “all of the internet” without Flash functionality. But it AIN’T gonna happen. But this is not entirely a technical issue, but as much a choice by Apple (read Steve). Apple (read Steve) dislikes Flash, and obviously feels that we don’t need it on the iPhone or iPad. Flash is not as swift, elegant and stable on the Mac OS as anyone would like, especially users. Flash lets stuff IN, as it can execute independent code on the browser. Apple also doesn’t CONTROL Flash, or control any of the apps that Flash support would enable. Steve also at the moment seems to be on kind of hostile terms with both Adobe and Google, which has some potentially ugly ramifications for us users.

Steve Jobs also apparently sacrifices virgins to the God of Simplicity. Check out the stuff that Apple clips, that only comes back because Pro users loudly HOWL, we ungrateful wretches. But there’s a LOT of FireWire gear out there. User demand is one reason why Apple has so grudgingly supported multi button mouse functionality, while extended keyboards and non-glossy screens seem an endangered species. As Jamie weighed in, not so kind to pro users lately. So while I love my mac, I am NOT a kneeling Steve Jobs fanboy. We’ve got a few issues. At times, Apple even takes a few plays from the MicroSoft play book, and decides that they’ll tell you how we’ll do tour computing, or what features and capabilities we should have. “Trust us, WE know what’s best.” Ballocks.

This continued passing over of Flash has spawned a conversation out there over the coming of HTML 5, which offers more robust multimedia functionality in an open standards approach. But that day is not here. And like the horrifying Internet Explorer 6, Flash is not going anywhere. and even should HTML 5’s star rise, Flash will linger for years to come. Adobe literally has people staying up late looking for ways to make Flash even more ingrained and indispensable on the Web and on mobile devices. As a creator I just wish they would make Flash a more forgiving working platform, and frakkin’ Actionscript 3 easier for us visual guys to use. WTF, Adobe? It’s a bear to work with unless you have both visual design and programming skills But hey, a guy can dream, eh?

Some last thoughts, since the thing isn’t in the Apple Stores for a while yet, I can’t offer an in-person commentary of  the hands on experience. Mind you, the last time I was in an Apple store for service, I was playing with a iTouch while in the queue. (They put the iPhone/Touch display directly adjacent to the Genius Bar line.. evil, I tell you!) I eventually asked one of the happy t-shirt Apple Corps soldiers to pry the little brick of electric crack from my sweaty fist before my credit card spontaneously hurled itself across the counter screaming for Steve’s baby. Intuitive is a LOT cooler and WAY more fun than either blue screen or the beachball. Much to AT&T’s rude awakening.

However, I am pleasantly surprised that the rumored “under-$1000” price tag of the iPad came in at a base model starting at $499. But  “under $1000” is usually marketing speak for $999, plus shipping. Still pricey, and more than many netbooks, but still, reasonably accessible for the comfortably affluent. I however, have to buy groceries. And the next $600 tech purchase is most likely the next Adobe Creative Suite upgrade. And AT&T may live to regret this, but somehow Apple got them to agree to some rather affordable data plans.

Meanwhile, I am finishing this up, at home, on my still spunky studio G5, on a full Pro Keyboard with my Wacom tablet. I have firewire and USB gizmos connected, including a scanner, printer, firewire drives including terabyte backup drive. I have about six applications running, and iTunes is playing a lush spacey electronic  grove from some internet radio station, on pretty decent speakers. That’s right. Multitasking, baby.

Just sayin’.

Apple iPad Page
Apple Video Intro
Cnet iPad Coverage
Cult of Mac Coverage
Gizmodo, Apple iPad First hands-on
Engadget iPad Hub
Angry Zen Master

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