Why wouldn't you want an Apple iPad on your coffee table?

28 January 2010

Apple iPad

The long-awaited and much-hyped Apple iPad is out, receiving a fairly upbeat response in the media and a much cooler, going on hostile reaction among bloggers and commenters.

Spec-obsessed techies bemoan the lack of hardware features and the relatively modest screen resolution, processor power and storage space. But the iPad isn’t about any of those things. It’s about providing a great user experience for the things it does, not beating the competition on points.

What competition, anyway? Netbooks, the Kindle and other e-book readers, smartphones and even Windows 7-based tablet computers are all aimed at different uses and audiences. Assuming Apple wants to keep selling iPhones, MacBooks and iMacs, it clearly doesn’t believe the iPad is a replacement for your phone, laptop or desktop.┬áThe iPad is in a category of its own for now.

So cutting past the “I wanted two cameras, multi-tasking, Flash and a 500GB hard drive” crowd, let’s ask the real question: Why wouldn’t you want an iPad on your coffee table?

What would be so terrible about being able to pick up a hand-held device with a lovely big screen and browse the web?

Why would such a thing be so awful if you wanted to curl up in a chair – or in bed – and watch a film or some YouTube clips?

Could you really not enjoy reading a book on such a thing?

No-one is stopping you popping your (smart) phone in your pocket when you go out. And no-one is stopping you working on a fully-featured laptop or desktop computer with all its multi-tasking, power and disk space when you want to do some serious work. The iPad is for sitting back, browsing, watching, listening. Writing the occasional email, tweet or comment. The kind of thing you probably either squint at a smartphone to do, or struggle to do with a netbook or toasty laptop and its poorly-suited trackpad.

You don’t need a full, multi-tasking OS to do any of these things. You don’t need Flash. You don’t need USB ports. And you don’t need a lot of storage, although by many sensible standards, the top 64GB model has a lot of storage – but not if you’re the kind of chap that has a computer dedicated to running BitTorrent.

No-one needs an iPad. Even at what appears to be a modest price for what it is, it’s a luxury item. While I would definitely argue that most working people and students need a computer and that many would benefit from having a smartphone, this in-between category of slick media viewer is pure indulgence. It will stand or fall not so much on what it can do, and even less on what it can do that other gadgets can’t. The user experience will be everything.

The test of the user experience isn’t on the spec sheet or in the promo photos or videos. It’s in getting into your hands (and hopefully, living room) and having a go. I’ll reserve further judgement until I get a chance to do just that, but if it’s as much of a joy to use as the iPhone and iPod Touch then it’ll definitely be finding house room and earning its keep by pure pleasure alone.

We’ll be seeing a lot more of these kinds of devices in future, from Apple and many others. Not just tablets, but a myriad of things-that-compute-that-aren’t-computers. For all its versatility, the general purpose computer and operating system is lousy to use, still feebly perpetuating the same interface and interaction design of the first Macs (and Lisas) back in the early 1980s.

Smartphones show promise, but their small screens will always limit their uses for many applications, at least until we can wire them into our goggles or optic nerves. The future is computers that are smaller, more specialised and more numerous, each of which is limited to but hopefully beautifully suited to its task. With its screen, controls, software and storage, what is a digital camera if not an elegantly-specialised computer?

If you ran a big organisation, why wouldn’t you want half a dozen iPads in the waiting area at reception?