The Essence of iPad

This post originally appeared on Joe Hewitt’s blog. He truly does capture the essence of the iPad in this piece — I couldn’t have said it better. I was so blown away that I asked him if we could republish it and share it with our readers, which he very kindly agreed to let us do. Enjoy…Om

Most of the iPad reactions I’ve read have been negative, but I have been completely satisfied with what Apple announced. iPad is exactly the product I’ve been wishing for ever since I wrapped my mind around the iPhone and its constraints.

While the rumor mill was churning with all kinds of crazy possibilities for the Apple tablet, I mostly rolled my eyes, because I felt strongly that all Apple needed to do to revolutionize computing was simply to make an iPhone with a large screen. Anyone who feels underwhelmed by that doesn’t understand how much of the iPhone OS’s potential is still untapped.

I spent a year and a half attempting to reduce a massive, complex social networking website into a handheld, touch-screen form factor. My goal was initially just to make a mobile companion for the facebook.com mothership, but once I got comfortable with the platform I became convinced it was possible to create a version of Facebook that was actually better than the website! Of all the platforms I’ve developed on in my career, from the desktop to the web, iPhone OS gave me the greatest sense of empowerment, and had the highest ceiling for raising the art of UI design. Except there was one thing keeping me from reaching that ceiling: the screen was too small.

At some point I came to the conclusion that Facebook on iPhone OS could not truly exceed the website until I could adapt it to a screen size closer to a laptop. It needed to support more than one column of information at a time. I couldn’t fit enough tools on the screen to support any kind of advanced creative work. Photos were too small to show off to my far-sighted parents. The web required too much panning and zooming to enjoy reading. Beyond just Facebook, most of the apps I used most on my iPhone also suffered from these limitations, like Google Reader, Instapaper, and all image, video, and text editing tools. The bottom line is, many apps which were cute toys on iPhone can become full-featured power tools on the iPad, making you forget about their desktop/laptop predecessors. We just have to invent them.

Opportunity

iPad is an incredible opportunity for developers to re-imagine every single category of desktop and web software there is. Seriously, if you’re a developer and you’re not thinking about how your app could work better on the iPad and its descendants, you deserve to get left behind.

True, iPad 1.0 has a lot of limitations which make it hard to be compared to a laptop today. We’re not there yet, people, but does it really take that much imagination to see how we will get there? Apple clearly wants to increase its investment in iPhone OS and reduce its investment in Mac OS X. At some point in the near future, Apple will adapt iPhone OS to even larger screens, add multi-tasking, and release something like a laptop or iMac with the OS. When it happens, it will make perfect sense, because by then there will be orders of magnitude more iPhone/iPad apps on the App Store than there ever were for Mac OS X and Windows.

A Closed Platform?

Given my concerns about the way Apple runs the App Store, you might expect me to jump on the bandwagon screaming about how Apple is evil and iPad is the death of open computing. Nonsense. My only problem with Apple is the fact that they insist on pre-approving every app on the App Store. The store may not be open, but the iPhone/iPad platform itself could hardly be more open to tinkerers of all ages.

The one thing that makes an iPhone/iPad app “closed” is that it lives in a sandbox, which means it can’t just read and write willy-nilly to the file system, access hardware, or interfere with other apps. In my mind, this is one of the best features of the OS. It makes native apps more like web apps, which are similarly sandboxed, and therefore much more secure. On Macs and PCs, you have to re-install the OS every couple years or so just to undo the damage done by apps, but iPhone OS is completely immune to this.

As a developer, it’s a bit sad losing the ability to come up with crazy plugins and daemons and system-level utilities, but I believe it’s a tradeoff worth making. What people are overlooking is that the Internet is an integral part of the iPhone OS, and it is the part of the OS you can tinker with to your heart’s delight. If you want to invent a new scripting language or background service or something, you’re still totally free to do that, but you’re going to have to run it on a web server. If you want total freedom on the client side, then write a web app. You’re simply no longer going to be able to tempt users into installing software that corrupts their computer.

So, in the end, what it comes down to is that iPad offers new metaphors that will let users engage with their computers with dramatically less friction. That gives me, as a developer, a sense of power and potency and creativity like no other. It makes the software market feel wide open again, like no one’s hegemony is safe. How anyone can feel underwhelmed by that is beyond me.

Joe Hewitt is a software developer who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and his accomplishments include Facebook for iPhone, Firebug, iUI, and early Firefox.

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