Why Do You Need a Computer to Use an iPad?


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?

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