iPad initial impressions: not a game changer (yet)
Today was the long-awaited announcement of the much anticipated Apple tablet, which by now is known by its WTF-inducing name: iPad.
Weird name aside, so far it seems like the reception has been maybe a little less that what one would have expected given the buzz surrounding the device. As of this afternoon, “iPad” hadn’t been a top trend on Twitter, whereas “iTampon” has, apparently.
At the risk of having my Apple fanboy credentials revoked, I will admit to not being “wowed” by the device. This is clearly a V1.0 device. There are a lot of things that, on the surface, the iPad is missing. It doesn’t have any slots for expansion of the onboard memory, for example. It doesn’t have a camera (front or back). Doesn’t have many input/output ports of any kind (e.g. USB, HDMI). Gizmodo has a list of “8 Things That Suck About the iPad” – and I’m sure there are waaaay more than 8 things that suck.
I wonder, however, how much of this is that people are trying to figure out what this device is through the lens of what computing is today instead of what computing will be tomorrow (ok, not literally tomorrow – I mean “in the future”).
“Ceci n’est pas un PC”
Today, we have a lot of “general purpose” computing devices. Laptops, desktops, netbooks, etc. I call them “general purpose” because they can for the most part be configured to perform many different types of tasks in a number of different usage contexts. Take the typical laptop, like the MacBook Pro that I’m writing this post on – it has a display, a camera, a couple USB ports, a FireWire port, DisplayPort, DVI port, mic and headphone jack. With the right software, my “general purpose” computing device can – take a picture/video, output a video to a TV, output audio, record audio, etc. Most of the time the laptop does a decent enough job on any given one of these tasks. But what my general purpose computing device can never really give me is the rest of the experience. It isn’t the right form factor for taking pictures. Nor is it the best form factor for hooking up to my TV and watching a movie.
What I’m getting at is that perhaps we shouldn’t be comparing the iPad to a general purpose computing device – like a laptop or netbook – but rather with “targeted purpose” computing devices. These are devices that do a few things really well – and have form factors optimized for those tasks – but are not intended to do all things “sorta” well.
“The network is the computer” – redux
So let’s say I take a picture with my digital camera. And now I want to look at this picture on my laptop. Today, I’d take the memory card out of the camera, dig out the card reader, plug it into my laptop, download the image, etc. “Tomorrow”, maybe I’ll take a picture and it will automatically be made available to other devices via WiFi or Bluetooth or by direct upload to Cloud storage (I always seem to find some way to squeeze a mention of Cloud computing in). You can already do this with something like the Eye-Fi family of products.
Ultimately I think this trend might be just another sign that the network really is “becoming the computer” – as per Sun Microsystem’s slogan from the mid-80s that “the network is the computer”. These “specific purpose” computing devices are just components in networked computer. The same way I might plug a web cam into my PC today and use it as an image capture device, we are getting to the point where we are able to “plug in” a networked digital camera. Increasingly, our computing is being spread across multiple devices. Sometimes we might chose a particular device for its form factor. Other times, we might chose a device because it’s appropriate for our context. This point, for example, started out on my iPhone (when I first got the idea), the bulk of it, I wrote on my MacBook Pro laptop, and now I’m finishing it up on my netbook (ok, in this case it is because my MBP battery is crapping out).
Computing in the future will be networked, it will be ubiquitous, and it won’t look anything like it does today. Going forward, we should expect to see more computing devices that are hard to put an existing label or classification on (e.g. PC, laptop, smart phone). Whether the iPad will be regarded in the technological “fossil record” as being a key stage in the evolution of computing or as “just another gadget”, only time will tell.