Steve Jobs called it magical. Fast-forward to today, and I (and about 15 million others) agree. However, if iPad, the device, is more magical, the applications (apps) for the device are anything but. Where are the apps befitting the device and its hardware capabilities?


It has been nearly a year since I first came in close contact with the original iPad. It blew my mind, and since then, it has become a daily accompaniment. I create content on my MacBook Air, but I spend a lot of time consuming content and media on the device. In fact, if I had to guess, I use my iPad as much as I use my notebook computer.

Steve Jobs called it magical. Fast-forward to today, and I (and about 15 million others) agree. Wednesday, Jobs announced the newer version of the iPad. It’s lighter, thinner, has more curves, and it’s definitely beefier. What’s more, it has many new capabilities: cameras and gyroscope for example. In other words, it’s more magical.

However, if iPad, the device, is more magical, the applications (apps) for the device are anything but. For nearly a year, I’ve been waiting (and waiting) for experiences befitting the device and its hardware capabilities. Sure, there’s Flipboard, but as the saying goes, one swallow don’t make a summer. And same goes for the iPhone and other smart platforms.

Let me explain. On an iPad, you have four elements — big screen, touch, connectivity and location — that make it unique. The iPad 2 has added two cameras and a gyroscope to the mix, making the device even more potent. And yet, we’ve seen application after application come to market as just an incremental improvement of the web or desktop versions of the same (or similar) application.

Some of the magazine apps developed for the iPad are just simply horrible, turning out to be no more than bloated multi-media versions of the print publications. Even The Daily, the made-for-iPad publication from the house of Rupert Murdoch, is nowhere close to being able to leverage the iPad platform, despite all the help from Apple itself.

Why? Because apps, content and consumption experiences on iPads and other tablets need to be rethought and re-imagined by combining the hardware capabilities with software. As Steve Jobs said in his keynote yesterday:

Our competitors are looking at this like it’s the next PC market. That is not the right approach to this. These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive. The hardware and software need to intertwine more than they do on a PC.

Since the iPad is connected and location-aware, I want my news (or news reader) application to serve me information with a local (or a regional context) as a starting point. Since news lives on an always-on connection, it should be near real-time. More importantly, since it’s again, news, on a touch-based device, it needs to be optimized for touch actions that are core to the iPad (or Android) platform so one can quickly consume the information.

It’s not just media apps; even games on these new platforms aren’t leveraging the capabilities of the platform. Earlier this week, Neil Young — co-founder of mobile games developer, ngmoco, now a division of DeNA — stopped by my office for a chat. I asked him if he’d seen games that leveraged the uniqueness of the smartphone and tablet platforms.

“I don’t think we are anywhere near to fulfilling the potential of the platform,” said Young. “The games that are popular today are either casual games and upgrades/variants of the games that have been hits on the web.” Like me, he’s looking for games that use touch, location and connectivity in a way that’s unique and entertaining. “On the tablets, I am finding it hard to find a great tablet experience.”

Like everyone else, Young too has been impressed with Flipboard, which has introduced a magazine-like user experience to iPad users. But that still doesn’t build on the uniqueness of tablet platforms.

Ronald Kuetemeier is one of my many super-smart readers. In an email, he pointed out the problem with the apps today is that many of the app developers are thinking with PC computer modality. What does he mean?

A spreadsheet may make perfect sense on a big screen device that takes its data input via a keyboard. Trying to retrofit it to a device with a smaller screen that uses touch for interaction is an exercise in futility. If I’ve used one of these apps — QuickOffice and Apple’s Numbers — it’s mostly as a way to read files attached to emails or shared via DropBox.

I’m hoping things will change in the near future. Yesterday, Apple showed off GarageBand for iPad 2, and to me, that was the highlight of the event (ahead of the smart-covers). Why? Because this is an app that was putting iPad 2’s capabilities to maximum use. This is an app made for the iPad.

Even from afar, it made sense: Touch is a better way of strumming guitars than using a mouse. Similarly, when hitting the drums, that the iPad’s accelerometer can detect the strength with which you’re hitting the screen could help translate into a better music. Apple could even take this app a step further.

Say, I’m in India (or Brazil). The app should surface some of the local musical instruments (and sounds) based on my location. Since iPad has a live connection, these add-ons should seamlessly download to the device in the background. Forget emailing the creations; the app should simply allow us to share the tunes via services like Sound Cloud.

Today, Stuck in Customs, the folks behind 100 Cameras and I, announced their app for the iPad 2, and boy, have they put the platform to good use. I saw the demo of it earlier, and I can’t wait to get my hands on this application, for it does leverage the hardware.

Another app you’ll find impressive is Shadow Cities, a real-world MMORPG developed by Finnish startup Grey Area, which recently scored over $2 million in funding from Index Ventures. It’s currently the number-one game app on the Finnish iTunes app store, lapping global phenomenon Angry Birds in the process.

What makes it so unique? It uses your real-life locations (with maps like you’ve never seen before) and real people, and puts them in a game-like environment. It doesn’t need any typing; touch is what makes it fun. And since it’s connected, it uses your social graph to build a whole new immersive experience.

Though it’s made for an iPhone, I believe this is an app that foretells the future of applications that really put an iPad to work, and in process, create magic.

Uh oh!

Something is wrong with your Wufoo shortcode. If you copy and paste it from the Wufoo Code Manager, you should be golden.

  1. well thought out nice article, but I think people like to read more about android v/s ios and google v/s facebook and how one is winning over the other. That seems to trigger comments and discussions. I wonder why.

    1. I am sure we all do that often enough. As someone who uses both Android and IOS, I see the benefits of both. :-)

    2. Laughing_Boy48 Saturday, March 5, 2011

      Pissing contests are more fun than actual fact. It starts out with children playing games with imaginary guns or super-powers. I can fast-draw my finger than you can and I shot you dead so how can you be alive. Guys at bars are always talking about their choice is better than yours. It’s great fun as long as nobody gets hurt. Besides, iOS is winning and is the best mobile platform in the world and maybe the universe. THE. WHOLE. UNIVERSE. Top that! See how I win that argument. Sweet.

  2. cool !

  3. Until app development is done on a PC, app will be like PC. Apple should support app development kit on iPad.

    1. I wonder if that is indeed the case. I think most people who develop for tablets have access to them and should know the capabilities of that device. I think it as ability to dream up new experiences.

      Regardless, if I am missing the nuance in your comment, please expand.

      1. not to be presumptuous… but i don’t think that’s the point he is trying to make… it’s not about just technically doing it on a tablet or desktop.. it’s about the mental baggage that comes from working on a desktop…

        people need to fundamentally change the way they think about these things… the world is not flat any more.. it takes an extraordinary person (i.e. these people are few and far beween) to be creative enough to think out side of the box and envision how things can work in this new world.. when development itself is routinely done on tablets people, the average dev will think like ‘spherical world people’.. they won’t any longer need to be extraordinary and have great vision.. it will just be the way things are.. not implying that innovation would no longer be necessary.. but the traversing a great mental chasm, doing a big mental transform won’t be a hurdle anymore and many more people will be producing quality, appropriate software products, services etc… eventually people will actually think differently and won’t have all that mental baggage getting in their way of just designing for this new “post PC era” that we are living in.. you see Job’s in the initial iPad presentation even eluding to the fact that he was having trouble letting go.. it’s going to take a little while for people to let go of the preconceptions before we see the real potential here… we are just at the beginning here..

      2. Maximus Williams Thursday, March 10, 2011

        It’s the “curse of knowledge”. The more we know something the harder it is to imagine not knowing it. The more familiar a developer is with developing PC applications the more difficult a time they will have creating something that leverages all of the strengths of a tablet.

    2. This does not make sense to me. PC ‘enables’ you to do development for iPad or iPhone or even to launch a rocket. Besides, what ever we develop, we put them on simulator anyways. What Jobs point hints also is that the idea, the spark that is needed and development make it possible, for iPad.

      I think of iPad as a blank slate with set of capabilities and develop what ever we can imagine.

    3. Hamranhansenhansen Saturday, March 5, 2011

      Development *is* done on an iPad. You attach a Mac to an iPad and run Xcode on the Mac and you develop. The Mac in that setup is an iPad accessory, a keyboard/compiler, and the iPad runs the app. The fact that all the iPad has to do is *run* the app (not host a code editor, run a compiler job) enables the developer to see their app 100% in context.

      If not for the Mac, you would need a second iPad running an Xcode app for iPad, and you’d have to add a keyboard to it and have a mode that opens up the Unix Terminal and pretty soon you’d be wanting to put an Intel chip in there to get 25 times faster compiles and then you’d have a Mac.

      The Mac+iPad development setup is also great for Web development, running BBEdit, Photoshop, Apache, PHP, etc. on the Mac and seeing your work in context in the iPad browser. This is better than toggling back and forth between BBEdit and a browser on one computer.

      If Apple didn’t already have the Mac, they would have to invent it for the sake of iPad. They are perfectly symbiotic, they are not separate at all.

      1. Making nails with nails is not always the greatest idea. Hammers come in handy occasionally!

    4. doctorspoc good points you make. But in a way you are helping make my point. I think we need some apps to standout and yes there won’t be as many, but the few that will actually benefit.

      PS: I asked Prakash, mostly because I think i might have been misreading his point of view.

      1. I think we might be there when we have an iPad IDE that exploits the iPad. Where you accomplish most of what you want to do through gestures and object manipulation. When it starts to feel like sculpture, painting, and conjuring.

      2. agreed.. once a few strong, unique, forward looking archetypes are established the platform will move forward at a much quicker pace..

  4. Hi Om, great article. Challenging software developers to forget about how they built software for the desktop is exactly what needs to happen to move productive (as opposed to “neat”) tablet use forward.

    I would like to add another company to the mix that you have mentioned – Ge Wang and his team at SMULE. His philosophy is to look at each and every piece of the iPhone and iPad and see how they can use it to make music. Their approach is not from the software out but from the capabilities of the device in. I think this echoes what you are saying here.

    1. Rob,

      Thanks for the comment and calling my attention to SMULE> My bad for forgetting them because when they launched I was totally rocked by the capabilities. I think that indeed is the right approach. My apologies to Ge Wang for him not being in the article.

  5. Does the non 3g version support location awareness? I thought on the ipad GPS support was only on the 3g models? Do the wifi only versions support skyhook/Google positioning?

    1. Yes they do have some sort of GPS, though they don’t tell us what kind, according to this article. Skyhook is one of their suppliers so I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

  6. Agree in general, but I’d qualify that ‘Apps aren’t magical’ statement with ‘yet’.

    ‘Post-PC’ is exactly right – huge opportunity that is certainly centered around iPad today, but by no means exclusive to it. We’re in very early days.

    1. Hamranhansenhansen Saturday, March 5, 2011

      Yeah, it’s exclusive to iPad today. We’re talking about the iPad app platform becoming more “magical,” that is to say iPad-specific in their usage. The other device makers are still at a much earlier stage of trying to make a magical device. They do not even have any apps yet, let alone ones we can criticize. Maybe one of them will soon, maybe all of them will, but it is a much harder task than is made out by a wishful thinking I-T analysts.

      Also, other device makers all seem to be doing widgets only (Java, Dalvik, AIR, FlashPlayer) not native apps specific to the device. Writing a widget to run on Mac, Windows, Ubuntu, and Android is not going to make it tablet-specific. It’s the same problem we see with Web apps, where the PC is the lowest common denominator, even IE6 in some cases.

  7. Great article, Om. While the iPad doesn’t “have” GPS as you note in the above comment, it is location aware. Actually it surprises me that Apple didn’t add GPS considering all the outdoor use shown in the “how the iPad was used in 2010″ video. Stunning omission IMHO as an iPad could otherwise be the ideal car computer. Clearly room for competition.

    1. Yes, they should be putting a GPS in all models of iPad as well as the iPod-Touch. Like you, I’m totally surprised they haven’t.

      1. This is one of the reasons why Apple can maintain lower prices for iPads while their competitors can’t, and in the same time have a healthy margin on them, too. They don’t add everything that their competitors add or in the same quality. They add fewer components and of higher quality, but in the end their devices end up cheaper.

        I know it has been hyped up that Apple locked the market for most tablet components, but I don’t think that’s as true as most people think it is. For example, The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 was supposed to have a 8 MP back camera, while iPad 2 only has a 0.7 MP back camera and a 0.3 MP front one. I think if Android competitors would make a tablet with the exact same specs as iPad, they might actually be able to price it at $450 or even $400.

        Too bad most of them are still not smart enough to prioritize specs properly, and think that adding an 8MP camera to a tablet would actually help them sell it for $700. They also make the same mistake by adding a 3G chip to their *entry level* tablet (or by releasing the wifi one much later), probably a bit forced by carriers, too. Apple adds $130 for the 3G chip alone. Most people will prefer the wifi only version, so they are pricing themselves out of the market when they add $100 to the entry level tablet. Hopefully, they will smarten up by the 2nd wave of Android tablets, and learn how to plan them properly with price in mind first, then quality of components, and then the number of features.

    2. Hamranhansenhansen Saturday, March 5, 2011

      iPad 3G has GPS, cell tower locating, and Wi-Fi base station locating. iPad Wi-Fi just has the Wi-Fi base station locating. However, they all have Location Services, which abstracts that all away. So from an application developer perspective, the app just has to ask the iPad “where am I?” and the iPad always answers. There is no technical reason for apps to ignore location.

      1. This is a big country. WiFi outside the major metros is far and few between, way too far to get triangulation. The only way it’s going to really work and be ubiquitous is if all the devices have a gps chip.
        At the moment I’m in a medium sized town coffee shop so it knowns my location but two blocks away it doesn’t have a clue.

  8. Agree there’s still a lot of magic yet to come from creative developers. I believe even apps like the spreadsheet, which you describe as an exercise in futility, can be re-imagined for the touch device. And when that happens, it might not even be a grid of cells anymore…

  9. Hate to praise you for writing this article, well done.

    (my perspective too)

  10. Thanks for a very good article. You are sooooooo correct. Apple has created something extremely exciting. The possibilities are endless… but the MAGIC is the synergy of the software and the hardware:

    Hardware + Software = MAGIC


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