One of the first disappointments a brand new iPad owner often faces is the fact they simply can’t use their magic new toy right out of the box. To setup an iOS device, you need a computer running a compatible version of iTunes. But why?


One of the first disappointments a brand new iPad owner often faces is the fact they can’t use their magic new toy right out of the box. New iPad users turn on their device and what greets their eyes? An iTunes activation screen; the same screen iPod touch and iPhone users see. To setup an iOS device, whether iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone, you need a computer running a compatible version of iTunes.

But why?

Other smartphones, tablets, and media players don’t require a connection to a computer before you can use them. Moreover, iPad users learned recently what iPhone and iPod touch users already know: to upgrade their device’s OS, they again need a computer. Other devices can do updates over the air. Software updates on a Mac or PC don’t require a second computer, so why should iOS devices?

The initially obvious answer is the fact you need an account with iTunes to fully use an iDevice. That account manages the purchases you make on your iOS device. Since many users already have an iTunes account, this argument doesn’t make sense. A new iOS device owner should simply be able to enter their account info (or create an account on the spot) when turning on the device for the first time. Instead, new owners have to hook up to a “real” computer.

Again, why?

Of course, having a computer synced with your iOS device is handy. You can back up your data and quickly sync data from your computer. Documents, music, movies, pictures, calendars and contacts all easily get transferred from the desktop. However, with our lives existing more and more in the cloud these days, transferring this data via a computer running iTunes seems to defeat the independence of the iPad. With the camera connector kit, the argument has even less relevance. We can use the iPad anywhere, but we have to race to a computer with an Internet connection to do updates or move content back and forth.

Why? Why? Why?

Cynics would say that it’s about making sure that iPad sales don’t cannibalize traditional computer sales. With Apple’s market share though, sales shifting from desktops and laptops over to iPads is actually a benefit to Apple as evidenced by the recent earnings conference call when this issue was discussed.

There are probably a lot of PC users with older Windows machines who would be happy to replace their old PC with an iPad, which would handle almost all their computer needs. Apple’s “walled garden” approach really shines through for these users. No worries about competing browsers and email clients, downloading and installing software (even in the Mac universe, how many times do you see people running apps off the disk image rather than dragging it to the Applications folder?) Malware isn’t currently a concern, and the parental controls are quite handy. The price helps bridge the digital divide, making powerful computing accessible to everyone. That goal was one the motivators of the netbook movement. Apple changed the rules and added a new one: this magical and revolutionary device still needs a traditional and mainstream copy of iTunes running somewhere for setup and maintenance.  Again…why?

Because Steve said so, that’s why!

Ultimately the iPad will probably gain independence. But for now, regardless of logic, market conditions, or technology, Steve Jobs sees the iPad as a companion rather than a replacement for the traditional desktop or laptop. It’s both something more and something less than the typical computer. Will we see the day when the umbilical cord between traditional operating systems and the iOS devices is cut? One can dream.

Do you think iOS devices should require a separate computer? Why or why not?

Related GigaOM Pro Research (subscription required): Can Anyone Compete With the iPad?

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. All you really need is a local apple store for setup and maintenance. If you don’t have a computer, just go visit the personal shopper for setup or the genius bar for an update. No computer required.

    1. Dave Greenbaum logan Friday, July 30, 2010

      That is somewhat inconvenient considering one has to make an appointment at the Genuis Bar.

    2. So what you are telling me is that if I dont have a computer but want to update y should go to the f***ing store to do that too? That’s not an answer or a solution! You are just another fanboy happy to be screwed at!

      1. Calm the f*ck down innit.

      2. Andrew Macdonald – maybe you shouldn’t worship at the Apple altar so much. To HAVE to go into an Apple store to get the device set up is a bug, not a feature. Especially for power users who pride themselves on being self sufficient with computers. Frankly it’s an insult to my intelligence.

    3. Sorry if the sarcasm wasn’t clear. I guess it was a bit too subtle.

      1. Ha-ha… yes, perhaps a bit too subtle. … a raised eyebrow would’ve sold it perfectly though.

  2. I tink that as Apple moves into the cloud the iPad will have more opportunity to become independent.

    1. What you think does’nt seem worth a rat’s wank in a firestorm

  3. When I opened up my two ipads, I did not have the disappointment when I opened the box and had to activate the device. Maybe because I have iPhones, I don’t know. In any event, I am pretty sure apple is working on the cloud infrastructure to accomplish what you wish for, but I am sure that effort is quite complex. I would love to have that kind of solution by this fall, but my guess is it will be sometime early next year. I feel certain it is coming though. With that said, I don’t look to the iPad as a computer replacement, so it is not a big deal to me. And like Logan said, the apple store said they are glad to activate the iPad for you.

    1. Agreed. No doubt Apple absolutely understands the need for moving to the cloud. I think we will see the iPad ( and other idevices) rely more on MobileMe rather than the desktop very soon. It only makes sense for both the user and for Apple. With their new, massive data center going up in NC, cutting the USB cable (or chains) is inevitable.

  4. I wish it could operate independently of a computer. It would be the perfect “computer” for my Dad if 1) it could print directly to a wireless or networked printer and 2) it could be synced and backed up wirelessly without requiring a desktop/laptop as an intermediary. Of course that means wireless software updates as well. I’d buy an iPad in a moment if such were the case now.

    Good to find someone that agrees this would be a good thing. :-)

    1. I completely concur.

      My in-laws are wanting to get their first computer so they can use the internet and to print out stuff online. That’s it. Their budget is $500.

      I would put them in a base model iPad in a heartbeat, if it could sync/update without a computer and print.

      So now I am stuck looking at bottom of the barrel Win7 laptops trying to decide if they should get a Celeron or a Core Duo (or some AMD chip). ARG.

      1. Don’t do it. Those low powered devices suck. I bought one for my mom and even with just XP on it, it’s just so slow that she really doesn’t use it.

      2. Just get a desktop PC. If is for the family just have them set it up in a shared room.

    2. It isn’t free to print from the iPad yet, but there are apps that do it. Networked printers and all.


      I just got my mom (70 yrs old) an iPad because she wanted a PC to check her work e-mail from while at home. Perfect cheap solution — iPad.

      I agree with the complaints though, printing should already exist, and iTunes sync should be optional. Although, if getting these new features meant delaying the launch of the device, I’m glad they launched without them. My mom hates computers because something always goes wrong and she can’t get around it but I have a feeling she is going to love reading the news and checking her e-mail on this one. The Walled Garden is perfect for her.

    3. You can’t back it up entirely but an iPad can access 2GB for free on Dropbox.

  5. Honestly I don’t think this is a policy issue, it’s a pure technological issue. Apple doesn’t support full iTunes functionality on the cloud yet. When they do, the iPad will be completely free of the PC.

    1. Dave Greenbaum Eldad Friday, July 30, 2010

      Aren’t technological issues simply policy issues: do we want to engineer out this problem or simply live with it?

      1. Dave – you’re certainly not the idiot here. Consumers are not the idiots, either. Idiots are those that meekly take it or leave it.

  6. Guy “CouchGuy” McLimore Thursday, July 29, 2010

    I agree. I dealt with the possibilities for an iPad that was independent of any other computer at length in a blog entry just prior to the release of the iPad, and having one has only strengthened my belief that the iPad will only reach full potential when this is possible.


    I almost never bother to sync unless there us a system update.

  7. It’s frustrating. It appears Apple still doesn’t get the cloud. I get the feeling they’re going to deliver a new cloud experience in the near future. Why else build that huge data center? Apple will eventually decouple their mobile devices from the computer.

    1. I’m certainly all for making the iPad usable 100% independently. I’d be happy to give one to my dad in Bulgaria if that didn’t open a can of worms in having to troubleshoot whatever wretched PC he has at home.

      However, it may be that some of the critics here are not getting typical iDevice usage scenarios worse than Apple not getting the cloud:
      Take me — I have the 64GB iPad version, subscribe to tons of video podcasts (TED, 5by5, etc.) as well as generating/synching tons of music videos/TV shows from my EyeTV DVR software.

      I routinely swap in/out 2-3 GB worth of data when synching my iPad — on a *daily* basis. Attempting that stunt over the air would be a sick joke — yet with wired iTunes synching it is a trouble free and completely painless. A less sophisticated user would attempt to synch GBs worth of data OTA and when that fails or takes unreasonably long, they will blame Apple and the iPad.

      Lose, break your iPad — if you synch nightly like I do, you risk losing nothing at all when it comes to precious content. If you were downloading podcasts or iTunes content directly to the iPad — Oops — no backup, it’s either gone for good or it will take weeks to download it all again.

      Your iDevices need to be charged. If you simply plug them into your computer instead of the wall to charge, synching happens as a bonus. Unless you are in a non-computer usage scenario, which is rare enough, what’s the big deal?

  8. One step towards un-tethering the beast would be to allow wireless syncing.

    I now syncing across the air is slower the across the wire, but with a smart download system that would take action the background when the right network become available (and would stop when it was lost, only to resume later) would be a great improvement.

    After all, we get mail over the air!?

    1. Dave Greenbaum Shane Friday, July 30, 2010

      How does wireless syncing in your opinion differ from MobileMe?

      1. Because it doesn’t require a £59 a year subscription?

      2. Mobile me doesn’t sync apps and backup your apps that you pay for. It does do music, videos. It does have iDisk for things like this but iDisk sucks, and would not let you really add any files outside of the apple realm and in reality we all have files outside the apple realm we need to sync, backup and work with. I personally never attach the ipad to my computer. I store nothing on my iPad. I use air video and with my 3G ipad I can watch any video anywhere. For files i use quick office and drop box, drop box is really the way it should be as now i can edit and use all my files from all my devices and it auto updates those files i edit on all my systems.

        In retrospect the ipad is a bit too much of a closed system to really be an independent device. The fact is you still need to plug it into charge so why not plug it into your computer to charge and backup all your apple data.

    2. Why don’t you just mail Apple your paypal user id and pw and get it the fuck over with

  9. Of course it’s stupid, and there’s never been any need for it. Just another reason I prefer Android to iOS.

    1. No, that’s called iPhone envy. It’s built into every ‘android’ user. Every time Apple is criticized there they are, whittering on about how they ‘prefer’ their also-ran copycat device.
      What the fudge are you doing trolling an Apple fan website reading about the iPad if you don’t like iOS and use ‘android’???

      1. What Neil, afraid of another point of view?

  10. I agree with the article that it is frustrating that it can’t function completely independently of a computer. I think the one benefit of having to connect it to iTunes on another computer is the ability to add and remove programs and media quickly. I would imagine adding a feature-length film to your iPad over wifi would take considerably longer than dragging it onto your iPad in iTunes.

Comments have been disabled for this post