What Should the iPad 3 Do?

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The iPad 2 may have only just arrived, but at this point, I’ve spent enough time with the device to get a good sense of what I think is still missing from Apple’s tablet. But since, as Steve Jobs rightly points out, it’s more useful to talk about experiences than hardware specifications when it comes to today’s mobile devices, I think it’s more useful to think about what the next iPad should do than what it will look like.

Seamless Desktop Integration

Unlike Microsoft, Apple recognized that shoehorning a full desktop OS onto a tablet device wasn’t going to work out. It’s an act of compromise, and that’s something that rarely results in quality user experience. Instead, Apple went the route of optimization, and designed a specific version of its mobile OS for a large-screen device. Despite its mobile roots, the iPad version of iOS is very different from its iPhone cousin. The same can’t be said of Android, which was awkwardly ported as a smartphone OS to larger devices, then rushed as a tablet-specific version to market.

Now that Apple has differentiated its tablet experience, it appears to be taking steps to bring its various operating systems back into tighter alignment. iOS releases now make simultaneous appearances on both iPad and iPhone, largely boasting the same feature updates. And OS X Lion promises to bring many aspects of iOS to the desktop. This is a planned, well-thought-out convergence between mobile and traditional computing, and hopefully, the next iPad reflects that. I want to see more of what Adobe has previewed with its Photoshop Touch apps — namely a fully complimentary relationship between computer and tablet — built right in to the OS. Apple’s unique degree of control over every aspect of hardware and software on the Mac and the iPad should make this a given.

Make Storage Limitations Invisible or Obsolete

For all the hype about cloud computing and the lean, mean, local-storage-free future of mobile devices, I still find myself running up against space limitations unless I opt for the most storage available at point of purchase. This is especially true on the iPad, where rich media apps and ambitious games can take up a lot of space before you even start thinking about media like music and movies. Apple is putting the finishing touches on a gigantic data center, and hopefully, the company is planning to use that for more than just storing higher-res versions of QuickTime trailers.

The ultimate aim of cloud computing, from a user experience perspective, should be to remove, or make invisible, the idea of device storage constraints. Imagine an intelligent content management system that quietly slips your least-used stuff off to a cloud locker when you want to load on more recent movies, music or apps. It’s not nearly as far out of reach as it once seemed, and rumors about Apple’s cloud plans suggest it may be taking some steps in that general direction, at least. An iPad that doesn’t advertise its storage capacity, but instead touts its ability to handle all the media and software you could want seems like exactly the type of thing Apple has in mind when it talks about the post-PC experience.

Untethered

Many complain the iPad is still dependent on a computer in a very basic sense. I rarely sync, and in fact, usually only plug my iPad into my computer for updating or the odd battery charge if it’s convenient. But tethered syncing is still the only way to get your music and movies from iTunes to the device, unless you want to repurchase everything, and it’s still necessary for updates, backups and activation. Many critics argue the iPad can’t truly be a post-PC device while it still bears these limitations.

I’d argue the iPad can still be considered post-PC even without being completely independent from a traditional computer, but that’s beside the point. The next iPad should be untethered, not for the sake of justifying any cute semantic phrase, but instead, because it will provide that much better of an experience for the user. Having to physically plug in once in a while isn’t a terrible burden, but it’s annoying enough that I’ve been known to hem and haw about it, even if syncing or updating will only ultimately be to my advantage. And for users who could use the iPad as their only computer if only Apple would let them, truly cutting the cord would represent a massive improvement.

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