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Thursday
Sep302010

The iPad - two ... no, fifteen, weeks in

I've had a draft post in MarsEdit for some time now called "The iPad - two weeks in". Clearly that title is a little outdated now.

What's interesting is that my opinions haven't really changed in that time. So what follows is my unedited thoughts just over four months ago. I'll follow up with what has changed in the meantime - but that is all due to external factors.

The iPad - two weeks in

I've had my iPad now for two whole weeks. I've not used it as heavily as some in that time, but I think it's long enough to give my initial impression. I've publicly been quite excited about the iPad in principle since it was announced - but now I've been able to taste the proof in the pudding.

After the initial opening, where you find out for yourself how natural using apps like Safari and Maps are on the new device there's an inevitable awkward period where you realise that it doesn't do anything (yet) that you couldn't already do with your laptop or your phone. For some people this is all they see. That is, of course, missing the point.

First of all I'm used to taking my laptop with me everywhere - and if I don't have that I still have my iPhone. There are not many occasions where I need more than my iPhone, don't have my laptop but would have my iPad. But that's mostly because I'm a developer. If I wasn't using it for coding then most days I would probably leave my laptop at home and just use the iPad on the train.

In time, however, I've started to reach for the iPad first, even if I have the laptop with me. Why? Well it's smaller for a start. I have a 17" Macbook Pro - which is quite a lot to pull out on the train if I don't really need it. When I'm coding I really appreciate the extra screen estate - but for just about anything else it's not needed.

I'm also finding it generally a nicer, more natural, experience to interact with apps and content through the touch metaphor - especially Apple's implementation. After three years of iPhone O..., I mean iOS I still get great satisfaction in working with the interial scrolling views, for example.

So far this has just been a refinement of an experience I already had - it's not adding anything truly new - and there are some downsides, which I'll come on to. It's worth mentioning here, though, that we're only just getting off the ground with this. I'm very much an early adopter here. It's a little unusual that the hype around the iPhone and iPad have lead to such mass adoption already. There are bound to be people who expected more or are still wondering what you can actually do with these things to make them worth their keep. It will come. It will all come (and, as alluded to in that blog post I linked earlier, I hope to have my own part in that).

So that's the positive and the realistic. What about those negatives that I mentioned.

Well the first is that with the larger display and extra power you really do miss multi-tasking. Of course that's coming soon, to a degree, and that will mitigate most of my concerns here. However I do feel that in some cases it would be nice to have more than one app on screen at a time. I wouldn't want this to be the default way of working - as it is with desktop OSes. But the ability to do this selectively, perhaps with the widget metaphor, would be a nice addition. That said I'm a power user and not everyone would need or be comfortable with this. Even if we never get it, with the service-based multi-tasking that's coming it's going to be a good experience.

On a similar note I'm finding mobile Safari to be much more frustrating than in the iPhone context. Two things - the lack of tabs is annoying. While you have a somewhat similar mechanism in the form of the page toggle view, it's not the same and if you want to do a bit of research it's very limiting. Of course this is entirely a software implementation issue and there's no reason it couldn't be added in a future release (allowing for my next point).

The other issue with Safari, which it also inherits from the iPhone, is that it doesn't seem to do any disk caching. It holds a whole page in memory. If you switch to another page and it runs low on memory it will purge the first from memory and if you then navigate back it has to load the whole page over the air again! I feel this would need to be addressed before tabbed browsing could be offered.

Finally - and I think this is the biggest grievance I have with the iPad today - is the glossy screen. It's fine in low light conditions (if you turn the brightness right down). But outdoors, especially if the sun is out - or even indoors if the lights are bright - the display is really hard to read from and tires the eyes very quickly. What concerns me most is that Apple seem to be fine with this. Their "solution" is just to crank the brightness up until it overcomes the glare. This almost works. Sometimes even that is not enough - and it certainly doesn't address the eye strain issue - tiring them even more.

Before the announcement back in January the display technology was probably the most talked about aspect of the then-rumoured device. From reading the opinions at the time it sounded like if the iPad launched with backlight display at all - let alone a glossy one - it would be an instant failure. After the announcement those opinions became a distant minority as everyone else focused on what's great about the device. Sales so far certainly don't seem to be hindered by this weakness. This is a shame because I think it will just give Apple reason to ignore it altogether. I hope I'm wrong. After all they did do a U-turn over the same issue with the Macbook Pros when they went glossy. I held off getting a new laptop until they finally offered a matt display option again. I'm not so hopeful with the iPad, however since it's the glass that makes it glossy and that really needs to be there on a multi-touch display. The glimmer of hope, no pun intended, comes from the iPhone 4 which apparently pioneers a new manufacturing technique for connecting the LCD to the display which closes the gap between them. I'm hoping this will reduce glare - at least a little - and that this technology will work its way into the next generation of iPad devices.

In summary, there are irritations and weakness but all of these, with the exception of the glossy display, can be fixed with software updates - and I'm confident that some of these will filter through. The display is particularly disappointing but for many people it's fine. It's potentially "fixable" in future hardware revisions. An anti-glare screen protector may help too, although I've been reluctant to try one just yet.

Despite these downsides, and the early stage that the eco-system is at in terms of must-have apps, I still find the iPad to be a really great device that currently has no equal. It's not yet for everybody but I really do believe that the trend is that this gap will close.

The one area that I think the iPad will really shine - and we're only seeing embryonic examples yet - is in note capture and consumption. The immediacy of iOS, the natural interaction of multi-touch and the larger display/ touch surface of the iPad are, I think, the perfect ingredients for making the capture of notes and ideas directly into digital form more practical and accessible than ever before. This is the direction my app ideas lie in and I'm really excited by the possibilities now on offer.

Remember - the revolution is only just starting.

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