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The Essence of iPad

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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 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.


[related-posts align=”right” tag=”iPad”] 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.

34 Responses to “The Essence of iPad”

  1. I think Joe makes some great points here. As with most people, I was extremely excited about the iPad before it’s announcement. I recognized the importance in the role it would play. I was hyping it up to my coworkers and friends, telling them this is going to be the future. Everyone is going to own a iPad; at the very least it will revolutionize the textbook industry. I just spent $415 on textbooks this term, can you imagine how much those costs could be cut if I owned an iPad and could get my books on them? The iPad could pay for itself in one or two terms.
    I was extremely disappointed however, to hear the details of the iPad. I would have absolutely loved for it to have tons of connection options, USB, Firewire, and a Media card reader to name a few. Unfortunately, Apple decided to restrict customers and try and make a few bucks — okay quite a few bucks — at the customers expense, by making add-on connectors. Would it really be that hard to add USB? My desktop has 12 USB ports for crying out loud. As an avid iPhone 3GS user, I’m outraged that Apple is still refusing to support Adobe Flash, it’s ridiculous.
    While the iPad does meet some basic expectations, I’m highly disappointed in it’s design execution. This device will ultimately serve as a transition tool, just to wet people’s appetite for the next generation iPad. I would hope that it would have a better name as well, preferably something akin to iSlate (although I get the whole iPod, iPhone, iPad thing). I will probably save my money, and wait for the next generation iPad after Apple has realized what a mistake they made by not going all out on this product.

  2. Like the story of The Three Golden Apples, Apple is stopping to pick up the gold and as a result may eventually lose the race.

    I’m not a programmer so the advantage of being open isn’t particularly sexy for me. As Jobs said, more or less, Apple is finding great success being the maker of very sexycool appliances. Don’t think of iPad as a computer; It’s not. It’s a media “player.” As has been much lamented, it is not a creative tool. And this is what I mean by choosing the gold and not the race; Long term, the computer is what drives Apple’s reputation and innovation. Like Paula Abdul leaving American Idol, once they abandon their flagship they will also lose the purpose behind their brand. As Jobs also noted–rather proudly–other appliance manufacturers–Nokia, Sony, Samsung–are suffering. Apple has the great fortune of creating both the hardware and software and with that the innovation. They’ve understood great design in a sector that believed design was superfluous; Too much attention to design represented too little attention to the machine itself. Now, in the age of Apple people associate quality with design. (A fact General Motors realized too late.) When Microsoft released its own music player the public yawned. Microsoft has no cache as an innovator; Microsoft is not sexycool.

    iPad is a beautiful fetish of an object. Who wouldn’t love to have one? However, its usefulness, as has been noted, is rather limited. One aspect of the iPad that’ll be interesting to watch as it’s used is how often these beautiful objects are dropped and rendered too damaged to operate. It’s an awkward size; I suspect its size will prove unmanageable. It doesn’t fit into a pocket and it’s too big for a purse. (They’ll have to develop the next generation of cargo pants and handbags to hold them.) Where are we to put these bloated SuperKindles? At least I can drop my book or New York Times to no effect.

    Like I said, it’ll be interesting to see.

    Apple has become mesmerized by it’s own success player in the world of media, but to phase out the computer will be their undoing.

  3. I agree with this article. This iPad is good enough. Subsequent releases will be even more compelling. Nevertheless, the real key point here is how Jobs and Apple are building a media channel (iBook, iTunes, Apps) that provides more negotiation leverage with the big media companies. With every passing day it’s going to be tougher and tougher for media companies who haven’t struck a deal with Apple to explain why they aren’t hopping on board and, if not, then what their digital strategy really is.

  4. For my grandmother, who cannot figure out how to play a DVD because the remote is too confusing, the iPad may be the answer to get her on email. Perfect device for those who don’t own computers; or even know how to use a mouse.

  5. timjones17

    The Essence of iPad is a jack-of-some-trades, master-of-none, underwhelming useless trinket looking for something to do. Cheaper netbooks from a year ago runs circles around this iTampon.

  6. For a number of years I have said that widget like interactions are the future of computing. Distilling down tasks to contextual actions is the role of software design in this scenario. General purpose applications like word processors become reduce to their essentials.

    I agree with Joe. Why is this bad for most people? Hell, I am tired of supporting people who have no business running a general purpose computer. The Psion NetBook was in my mind the beginning of this trend, and it was sad to see Nokia dismiss the market when Symbian developed out of EPOC. But, I see Android and Chrome merging into a similar goo of reduction.

    Frankly, the bad things that Joe, and I, has/have experienced is why I would like to see Android step up to the plate. I spoke with a product manager from a device manufacturer this week who expressed exactly such interest. Apps on the iPhone OS have simply appeared to get this model better. Hopefully that will change and facilitate great cloud/application interactions.

  7. Great article. I also have been going through many different waves of emotion about the iPad. Initially mad-as-hell about it not having a camera, I’ve now turned full circle and can’t wait to touch the internet. The touch interaction is the true revolution here. The iPhone was just the testing bed, and it worked, and Joe’s correct about the screen being too small for this style of interaction.

    By adding touch to the web, we are entering a new era of the internet. Begin the gold rush of touch web apps. Will we see “touch only” sites living alongside “old school” web sites? Or will we see new sites that work well as a touch interactive and in a traditional point-n-click browser. HTML5/CSS3 couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The stars are aligned.

    Also it seems the new SDK is allowing a browser file access system. Web apps will very quickly replace native apps with these new hardware access.

    No the iPad won’t replace the iPhone. I won’t be blindly walking down the street reading Google reader on the iPad, that’s what my iPhone is for. I’ll eventually like a front facing camera, but I only video chat like once a week anyway (maybe it’d be better on a touch pad).

    So now that I realize that I don’t use video chat that much, and I won’t be strolling down the street with a iPad in hand, and most of my iPhone use is web based, I think the wifi-only iPad will do just right, at least until I get a Chromo OS touch pad.

      • Jacob Varghese

        @ Eideard,

        Can’t use it to use t-mobile’s 3G network. The iPad doesn’t support their 3g frequencies. You’ll only be able to connect to their edge service.

        In the rest of the world, people will have lots of options.

      • microsims are the same, electronically, as regular sims. You can trim the plastic down on a regular sim to make it fit in a micro slot, according to various reports around the net. You can also, supposedly, purchase a tray that lets you use a microsim back in a regular sim slot.

        Not a big deal in the long run.

  8. Yet another set of solid reasons to be excited about it!

    As soon as I get one, bye bye mac book pro. All I’ll use is my 1,2,3 punch of iPhone, iTab and mac pro. Love watching movies and iTunes University on the iPhone. Can’t wait to use iPad for the same + showing clients their websites on safari (css3 + html5) to spec. 10 hour battery life! +1

    I was a little (just a little) sad about no iWork, iLife or video…. then I remembered the price and what it actually was. I’ll gladly write drafts in mac mail and continue point and shoot with the iphone.

  9. Joe gets what others – like Om – have been teaching us for a while. Computing power and communications have been arriving in the hands of millions of people who don’t own computers, don’t necessarily have access to broadband. The access device is a mobile phone.

    Apple figured that out and went with the best smartphone designed to date. That’s still the case. Every fool figures imitating the look is sufficient.

    Now, Jobs and Ive and the rest are leading that new and growing market into divergent and confluent streams with a larger form factor. Joe Hewitt perceives what that form factor offers and btw Apple then cranks up new innards that purpose-built will keep it faster and juiced-up better than any competitor will be until Qualcomm or whoever designs something to match.

    Which will take how long?

    We’ll have one of these critters in the family in 60 days.

  10. I honestly don’t see that much to be impressed with. Sure its nice that you have all those apps and opportunity for the dev side but I really expected more out of it. I was rather impressed with the price tag though, but I think that was almost a must have for Apple to be successful with this thing.

  11. Wait a minute, Joe — aren’t you making an excellent argument for Android? Like iPhone, it has sandboxing and security. Like iPhone, it can allow apps to stand alone in the way web apps do. But even a browser is capable of multitasking. So why not, as Android does, combine the security of signing and sandboxing apps with user freedom to determine what to install? Why not allow the user to replace default apps if she chooses? And how does the iPad do that if similar Android tablets cannot? (I suspect the answer to that question will be evident once we actually see Android tablets, with specs, pricing, software… which, aside from scattered prototypes and paper promises, we haven’t yet.)

    Also, it seems projecting what Apple (or Google, or Microsoft, or anyone else) will do in the future is a dangerous activity. As developers and even as users, isn’t it sort of our job to make that happen rather than be dependent on someone else to hand The Future to us?

    • one of the point Joe made which seems to be so important…users are tempted to install the bad apps…they only know how bad they are after they corrupt their OS and need to reinstall it…some times doing more (like Android install any app with user will) will be harmful…unless security checks are made to protect OS and its external interfaces…we don’t want another windows do we?? if google can solve this problem of flexibility with out compromising security and freedom of choice…its AndroidPad would have more takers…but the way google is going it is encouraging more HTML5 webapps than native Apps as well…

      Google embrace of carriers to implement hardware where it concentrates software will make it a less superior product when compared to iphone…it would could surpass the apple in top 20% market segment…but at the downside…it could bring downside it could make the product a commodity and reach it to bottom 80% of the market…

      • DistortedLoop

        Oh, I don’t know about all that. I can install ANY software I please on my Mac computers, and guess what, they’re still called the safest computers out there, and have been for a decade. It’s a ridiculous argument that “you might install ‘bad’ software.”

        Locking down the user to only Apple-approved software may be fine for Mom & Pop, but anyone with experience in the computer world it is a frustrating experience at times.

        How would you feel if Apple issued the next version of OS X with the system locked down so that you couldn’t multitask apps, and you could only install apps from the new OS X App Store? I’ll bet you’d be screaming bloody murder with the rest of us.

        The lines between phones and computers have already been significantly blurred by the iPhone and latest round of Android devices, with many pundits pointing out that the iPhone is not a phone, but a handheld computer that happens to make phone calls. The iPad will blur these lines even more, possibly erase them – it’s absolutely ridiculous to force a locked down, limited OS on the user when the hardware and the OS are both clearly capable of doing so much more.

        Make no mistake about it, the AppStore jail is all about locking you into Apple’s revenue stream for both hardware and software, and nothing to do with protecting you for some altruistic reason.

      • DistortedLoop

        What the heck does that mean? The latest hardware from HTC, the Nexus One, whether made with off the shelf components or not, blows away the iPhone 3G[s] (Apple’s latest device made with off the shelf hardware).

        Trust me, I have both the Nexus One and the iPhone 3G[s], as well as iPhone 3G and 2G models; I am speaking from experience.

        The Nexus One is significantly faster, has a much better screen, is lighter, has the same battery life, a better camera, better speaker, better call quality, better just-about-everything hardware-wise.

        The Android 2.1 OS is also much more flexible, feels more natural, and has a lot of very nice features that iPhone users are deprived of. The only things iPhones currently do better, in my opinion, than a Nexus One is tie in to Apple’s ecosystem of iTunes/MobileMe, and the iPhone is by far a much better iPod (media player).

        Apple’s new A4 chip sounds interesting, but until they push out a phone with it, in what 5-6 months, Apple’s no longer at the top of the heap with the iPhone.

        If you want the best hardware in an AppPhone, and an OS that excels in user customization, multitasking, and ability to choose what software you put on it, than that HTC product is your choice, not anything from Apple. Come summer, that may change, but right now I think Google and HTC are doing just fine with “off the shelf hardware”.

  12. Anonymous

    Going beyond Consumer/Personal use, I can imagine iPad being an excellent Menu Card (may be a different name) Ordering System in a Restaurant. Shopping Aid attached to your physical shopping cart in Retail store providing more information about items.

    It’s a very portable, highly usable and customizable computing device with infinite business use capabilities.

  13. Great post! Joe’s got it right, and let’s not forget the iPad will only get better and cheaper over time. Disruption happens over time, not with the launch of a single v1 product. I can imagine a million great use cases for the iPad already. Very excited to see where this is going.

  14. Agreed. I think the fanboy hype got out of hand but look what we now get for $499! And it will be $199 and more powerful and more functional in 30 months. I expect hundreds of millions of iPads, “AndroidPads” and their spawn to sell within a few years and every website — and every business — will be impacted (either very positively or very negatively).
    (go to my site for more on my views on why iPad is such a big deal and ultimately exceeds the hype)

  15. Good to see that I’m not the only one who expected, and is pleased, the iPad to be what it is. Of course, there can always be improvements. But for quick and easy usage, it will be hard to beat.

    Good article!