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Why Do You Need a Computer to Use an iPad?

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One of the first disappointments a brand new iPad (s aapl) 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?

98 Responses to “Why Do You Need a Computer to Use an iPad?”

  1. * Lack of WiFi for most people
    * Expensive data plans, syncing GB of data is not cheap
    * Computer as back-up, in addition to the cloud (MobileMe, Google)
    * Limited Storage on the device, cannot have all your content anyway
    * Still working on their cloud infrastructure
    * As most people have pointed out an iPad is not a PC replacement, not yet anyway…

  2. You make an excellent point. Sure it’s hardly a hassle to find a computer with iTunes, but with a device as robust and integrated as the iPad… why?

    Of course, I have been wanting wireless sync with my ipod touch for a while too. Same question… why???

  3. dtanders

    It’s because the iPad is a media player, not a general use personal computer replacement and trying to replace the latter with the former is like using a toothbrush to clean your entire bathroom.

  4. Was going to buy the ipad but am gonna wait for the next version. Maybe and hopefully that version will be closer to the fact that I can use the ipad instead of a tablet .

    Its great and all, but it still lacks a lot.
    And why no flash, let the users decide.

    The next few versions will be more stand alone than the ones now, for sure.

  5. Christian Sciberras

    This is quite ironic considering that Mr Jobs seem to believe that we won’t need computers anymore in the future.

    My opinion? My (quite bulky) i7 4gb ati5790 – based workstation can take on any number of those low-powered and slow iPads (iphone or whatever crap they come up with).

    Mr Jobs may have an army that produced nearly a quarter of a million apps, but my PC can do way better; I can do whatever I want with it, regardless of platform; windows linux osx or even a ti calc emulator.
    Oh, and I can roll out a new “app” any time I want, without worrying whether some *particular* guy’s policies like it or not.

  6. So many people have forgotten the failure of trying to replace a computer with a tablet. To avoid such a pitfall Apple has smartly said this is not a computer replacement and does not want users to think of it that way. At least not yet. So should it be able to work separate of a computer, yes. But as for most things Apple does it wants to change the way you think before they change what you do.

  7. People are dumb. The iphone has these sorts of issues all over it. Other devices are much more user friendly. However people still by products because of the *branding* and not due to the functionality.

    • Christian Sciberras

      I agree! Even though there is a certain quality to Apple’s products, it doesn’t make them any better.
      People still dream that Apple can cough up bleeding–edge and innovative products. It can’t.

      Technology is at a standstill, the tech Apple uses is also found in my 3 year old (since manufacture) Dell Mini 9 laptop.

  8. Joshua Stein

    Let’s see. Is the ultimate purpose of computing devices to make the world a better place? No the ultimate purpose of computing devices is to SELL hardware and software. And is the case with any drug dealer to keep the addict attached to one dealer. This explains the MS model and Apple model of design and release. And don’t underestimate either Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (Hmm, gates…jobs. Why does this seem appropriate?). They may not be the best tech folks (long story goes with this on another post) but they ARE the best business and marketing folks with a drive to dominate the market (see dealer above). So bottom line is bottom line and Steve did not want to kill BIG OS machine sales. We’ll have to wait for these guys to decide when to make the transition to real portable devices.

  9. Nicola

    I’ve just bought an ipod touch as a gift to one of my nieces.
    It was very disappointing to me (actually to her) that the ipod doesn’t work out of the box. There is no technical reason for it (i am a software programmer). Only monopoly reason.

  10. I am a developer for the iPad, and in the beginning I didn’t feel all that good about an iPad. I resisted the need to purchase one. Then a client needed me to convert a program for the iPad so I purchased a 32G WiFi. At first I could not see the need for the device, then I started to comb iTunes for useful apps. After a month I have found the utility of the iPad to be much better than I ever expected. I have 4 new apps built and going through Apples review process. The utility is there if you look for it. I write apps that are for business and productivity. You can see what I am doing at this web site.

    • troll, you comments have nothing to do with the article, you are trying to advertise yourself. write something abut the article or post your nonsense elsewhere.

  11. Graham

    My other gripe is needing a WiFi connection to download anything over 20MB! There should be a prompt to say ‘this app is xMB, are you sure you want to download it over 3G?’.

  12. >I would have liked the iPad keyboard dock to have had a USB socket into
    >which a USB memory stick or a Time Capsule could be plugged, and
    >either of these used with a Time Machine app.

    And, of course, that the Time Machine app would work by wireless to a Time Capsule. (For initial backups of a well-used iPad, the ability to make a wired connection is essential if the backup is going to finish in any reasonable time.)

  13. I, too, would recommend the iPad to several less than computer literate acquaintances if only it could be used stand-alone. The lack of full backup – whether to the cloud or local storage – is also an issue if you do not have another computer. I know of the iDisk app for explicit file backup to MobileMe, but that isn’t a substitute for Time Machine. I would have liked the iPad keyboard dock to have had a USB socket into which a USB memory stick or a Time Capsule could be plugged, and either of these used with a Time Machine app. Read about iPad backups – iTunes is needed (of course).

    As it is, my computer newbie acquaintances are buying Windows netbooks because they are inexpensive, but finding them slow and difficult to use. After finding that the netbook is too slow, their thoughts tend to buying a more expensive Windows laptop (often because it is what their children or friends have).

    Such a missed opportunity for Apple, though they’ve sold so many iPads to people who already have computers.

  14. You don’t really need to sync with a computer (except for activation) as long as you buy all your iPad content in the iTunes store (music, tv shows and books). And isn’t that the whole purpose of the iPad? To chain the consumer to Apple’s online stores?

    Maybe that’s why syncing is so inconvenient and confusing. We’re not even meant to sync our iDevice. Just buy everything directly from Apple and you’re spared the whole syncing nightmare!

  15. Lucius

    I agree the iPad should be able to be independent, and apart from the initial setup, which can be done in-store by Apple, it can be used independently of a computer.

    However, even my 64Gb iPad can’t get close to hold everything I need. My photo library stands at 51Gb and my iTunes collection is 295Gb! Neither of which I would like to contemplate uploading to the Cloud, and a lot of the time my 3G (or Edge) connection just isn’t up to the job of being able to access that data fast, or reliably, enough – nor would I trust “The Cloud” with my very personal photo collection that has taken me years to amass and potentially someone else a second to loose! It simply isn’t viable for most people to use an iPad as their primary device, and Apple understand that.

    • The question is not if an iPad is suitable as a primary device. Sadly it isn’t. The question is why we need a computer with iTunes as the single lifeline of the iPad. Why can’t it function on it’s own? Why can’t I connect it to any computer from any person and just drag and drop files onto it?

      The answer is clear: that would cut into the iTunes store’s sales.

      • Lucius

        You can actually drag and drop files onto it via iTunes – which will convert it into the correct format for you. Absolutely no need to buy your songs/films etc through iTunes. I buy a lot from iTunes, but most of my music is from CD’s and some films are ripped from DVD’s I own but wanted to watch on the iPad/iPhone. There is no obligation or requirement for you to buy only iTunes content. If they cared about cutting into their iTunes sales, why would they (heavily) promote apps such as Netflix, Air Video etc. – all of which cut into iTunes sales.

        The reason they don’t let you do it from any computer / any device is that for iTunes bought media (and apps), are DRM’d so that you can’t just buy one film/app/tv show and share it around 100 friends, or post it onto the Internet for everyone else to download to put on their iPad. You can however do that with non-iTunes bought content.

    • Dennis

      Get yourself a NAS, put some discs in it, and access it via a wireless Samba/NFS/SFTP/Whatever connection. Let’s face it the iPad is only really good at data presentation, okay at data creation, and terrible at data storage.

  16. From a marketing stand, Apple is doing the right thing. But for the end user it might not be the greatest satisfaction. If you want to work in the cloud, you have to pay $99 a year to make it over the cloud. There have been recent signs of there being limited use on MobileMe for some people that don’t want to pay for the cloud.

  17. Francesco

    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.

    • 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’???

  18. 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!?

      • 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.

  19. 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.

    • Ted T.

      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?

  20. 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.

  21. Walter

    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. :-)

    • Brandon

      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.

    • Justin

      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.

  22. 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.

    • 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.

  23. 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.