Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPad, therefore i...Read?

(in my mind, at Adobe, 1998)
A tablet-type device, 8"x10" (that's a 12-13" diagonal screen) or so, capable of displaying PDF, would be worth $1000. As this is pre-widespread wireless network, no thought of connectivity enters into the picture.

(in my mind, last week)
I don't know what the mythical Apple Tablet is going to be, but I would be happy with a device twice the size of the iPhone, which screen would be about 4x6, so long as I can:
  1. read Kindle books and PDFs on it;
  2. attach a keyboard in order to be able to type;
  3. run some large subset of either iPhone or Mac apps, or perhaps both
I would consider paying $800, possibly $1000 for such a device, depending upon battery life, CPU power, connectivity, etc.

But that would be a very prosaic device to be shipped by Apple as a paradigm shifting device. I find it difficult to believe that Apple would do something that ... straightforward.

(San Francisco, 2010.01.27)
Apple introduced a new computing device today, the Apple iPad. It is an attempt to find a sweet spot as "a third device" between the smartphone and a notebook. Since the smartphone itself is really an Apple invention (that is, the iPhone is the standard by which other smartphones are judged, as evidenced by the fact that every new iPhone is an "iPhone killer"), this is Apple attempting to extend their portable device domination* up the computer power ladder toward notebook computers.

I will start by saying that I find the name "iPad" completely uninspiring. As has been pointed out, it sounds like a feminine hygiene product. It's also easily confusable with iPod, and it's owned by Fujitsu in the USA.

7.5" x 9.5" x .5"
16, 32, or 64 GB of flash memory
WiFi and optional 3G connectivity, Bluetooth 2.1
1.5 - 1.6 pounds
1024 x 768 pixel display @ 132 ppi IPS (in-plane switching) Multi-Touch Screen
1 GHz Apple A4 custom SOC (system on a chip)
Accelerometer, Ambient Light Sensor, Digital Compass, GPS
Microphone, Speakers, Headphone Jack
On-screen keyboard
Dock for charging, optional video out, optional physical keyboard
iPhone OS 3.2 (currently in Beta)
10h Claimed Battery Capacity

Notably Missing:
Cellular Voice capability
Camera & Flash
SDHC slot for expanded memory
Front-facing Camera for Video Conferencing
Multitasking (apparently)
RAM capacity unannounced so far as I can tell, but I assume 256MB or above.

Support Structure:
iBooks store

WiFi Only: $500 - $700
WiFi + 3G: $630 - $830

The Obvious
The basic specs are nice, although IMO the jury is still out on the 1GHz SOC CPU/GPU combination. No one seems to have much of a grip on just how powerful this chip is compared to what's in the iPhone 3G or 3GS, although it is presumably at least 2/3 faster than the 3GS chip (which runs at 600 Mhz). This is an iPhone on steroids, less the cellular voice capability (it would appear to retain at least the potential for VOIP via WiFi and/or 3G), minus the camera. Alternately, it's an iPod Touch on steroids, plus optional 3G data capability.

The Price
Personally, I found the price surprisingly low, and the suggested data plans very reasonable. I would have paid more for this system, but I'm not Apple's target market. I think at $500 this is a very attractive alternative to a netbook, assuming the text input system works well. With a top end of $830 for the 64GB WiFi+3G model (plus another assumed $100 for the keyboard doc and keyboard or a dock and Bluetooth keyboard combination) you have a new, cheaper, lighter, more portable way to have the elegance of an Apple product as your primary portable computing system.**

Books are the new Music?
Apple also announced a reader application called iBook and the new iBook store. Partnering with five major publishing houses (HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Shuster, Macmillian, and Hachette Book Group), books will be presented in the ePub format, an existing open standard for publishing based upon XML. The iBook app looks a lot like Delicious Library and will connect directly to the IBook store. There is brief mention of a partnership with Amazon [@ 10:54], but no details, so I don't know if that is correct or not.

Regardless of their relationship with Amazon, I think it perfectly likely that the Kindle app will continue to work on iPad, making it even more possible for people to buy Kindle books from Amazon. ePub does support optional DRM, making it possible for iBooks to be difficult to copy and opening the door for Kindle to support iBooks and possibly for iBook to support Kindle volumes.

It seems clear that Apple is attempting to disrupt the print publishing world in more or less the same way they disrupted the music publishing world with the iTunes Music Store. Despite Steve Jobs' famous assertion that "people don't read anymore", the iPad and iBook ecosystem is clearly intended to make reading paper a thing of the past if at all possible. Given that 3-5% of the books published today are eBooks, there's clearly a lot of room for growth. Since a lot of the cost of a book is the physical medium on which it's delivered, there's clearly a lot of room for cost savings in the publishing pipeline by switching to lower-cost digital media.

Which raises the question: what do print publishers bring to the party? In an effort to cut costs, book publishers have all but abandoned the secondary services they used to provide authors: copy editing, proofing, and type and layout design. They have become merely infrastructure to turn digital files into physical books, distribute those books, collect money for them, and arrange for the disposal of the excess volumes. Most of those steps are unnecessary in a digital world, and it will be interesting to see how book publishers morph in the face of a potential industry-wide disruption of this scale. When you and I can publish simply by creating a digital manuscript and offering it to the iBook store (or the Kindle store), the major publishers become nothing more than marketing machines and will have to reinvent themselves as such or face increasing irrelevancy. Amazon and Kindle started the process. If the iPad and iBook ecosystem becomes as popular as the iPhone, Apple and iPad may finish it.

The Missing
Let's reprise that list of things "Notably Missing" from the iPad:
  1. Cellular Voice capability
  2. Camera & Flash
  3. SDHC slot for expanded memory
  4. Front-facing Camera for Video Conferencing
  5. Multitasking (apparently)
1. Cellular Voice: I don't think this is a big deal one way or the other. VOIP will be an option (at least over WiFi, and possibly over 3G depending up carrier -- Apple will not be able to claim that VOIP apps are impinging upon the base phone capability in this device). Using a Bluetooth headset is increasingly required by law when driving, so using a hands-free device with the iPad doesn't seem like a big stretch, so the argument that "you can't put a device that big up to your ear to make a phone call" falls by the wayside. That said, adding voice capability might have increased the cost of the device and would have definitely increased the complexity of the pricing.

2. Camera and flash: I am a heretic in this matter -- I believe in carrying dedicated cameras for specific purposes. I do use the camera in my iPhone on occasion because it is the only camera I carry all the time. When I expect to be doing casual photography, I carry one of two different small point-and-shoot digital cameras, and when I expect to do serious photography, I carry a digital SLR and way too much glass. The iPad is not appropriately sized to use as a camera, even casually, and I don't see the point of saddling it with camera circuitry, battery draining flash, and the software to deal with them for the minor gain of having an inferior photography experience.

3. SDHC (or other removable media) for expansion: 64GB ought to be enough for anybody :-). With reasonably constant network access and USB 2.0 connectivity, I don't feel that expanded capacity is that big a deal -- it hasn't been for the iPhone, hasn't been for the (much more limited) Kindle 2, and I don't see why this should be different. The Macbook Air has less capacity and is doing just fine.
That said, I would have appreciated a CF or SDHC slot for photographic media, like I have in my MacBook Pro. I anticipate an add-on reader and accept that my needs may not match the needs of the majority.

4. Front Facing Camera for Video Conferencing: I think this is a matter of positioning more than anything else. The iPad is clearly intended as a media device, playing music, video, and text. If it were positioned as a business device I think the lack of a front facing camera would be much more egregious.

5. Multitasking: depending upon the power of the CPU/GPU this may be a temporary omission. I think Apple has decided that the simplicity and robustness of a (largely) single-app-at-a-time OS trumps multitasking. It simplifies the user experience, simplifies the programming experience, and makes the system more reliable in a resource limited platform. As a geek, I do rather miss multitasking, but I don't think most users will. At all. Especially if switching between apps is a fast as it can be with a faster CPU with more RAM.

Ultimately, the feeding frenzy of rumours inflated the expectations of a lot of people. A device with all the bells and whistles suggested by the rumourmongers (some of them, I'm sure, planted by Apple deliberately) would have been the hardware equivalent of Microsoft Word: big, slow, expensive, and full of features that few people want. It's a truism that most users use 10% of available features, and it's the overlap of those 10%s which create monsters like Word. Apple is as much about paring down features to the required elegant minimum as they are about discovering new critical features which no one else imagined.

I think the iPad sounds like a good balance. Depending upon its power (which is a bit of a mystery) and its battery life (which must always be seen in context of a specific use profile) and its text input capabilities (and I think I trust that Apple nailed this one -- one way or another), it may create that "third device" category Jobs talked about during the unveiling. Does it have the potential to be a world-changer (like the iPhone)? I believe it does. Might it be the second coming of Newton? It could be, but I doubt it. If it is, I think I will be one of those people still using it a decade or more later, just because it's so cool.

There's a lot more to say, but I think this is enough for now. The iPad obviously has huge potential for vertical markets (especially healthcare) and the ease of programming it (presumably) inherits from the iPhone makes it a more nimble platform than anything Windows based. These (and more) are subjects for a different time.

*Yes, iPhones comprise only 30% of the smartphone market, and smartphones are only a bit over 10% of the worldwide market, making iPhones total penetration a mere 3%. But that 3% is making Apple more money than Nokia's 40% market penetration, and is absorbing 50% of the portable network bandwidth.

** Ultimately, this configuration is cheaper than either a subsidized or unsubsidized iPhone. With the larger display and faster CPU/GPU, it is very probably a more capable computing platform.