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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thoughts on the iPad

So April 3rd, came and went. I got to the Apple store around 10am, no lines but lots of people, but 5 minutes later I was out holding a new iPad. Got it home and the kids were surprised and excited, after all, they had been hearing from Daddy about the iPad for months... and finally here it was. Did it deliver on its promise? you bet it did.

So what makes the iPad so special? Well, regardless of all the buzz and hype around it, let's look at it for what it is. In your hands you are holding a device that gives you instant access to knowledge, answers, entertainment, fun, music, video, news, photos and who knows what else in the future by allowing you to interact with the simplest form of human-device interaction: your fingers.

The next day was Easter Sunday and we had a gathering of friends at the house and everybody wanted to look at the iPad and play with it, after the curiosity was satisfied and people started to realize everything that you could do, they soon started to forget about the device and interacting with the content more seamlessly. There was a grandmother among our friends and when we showed her that she could access the the maps in google, the newspapers and that she could change the font or pinch to zoom to read better, she immediately was amazed by what she could do, and really got more interested in the content and navigating through it than by the device. The iPad disappeared and the content was the only thing that was left.

Then comes my 6 year old playing with the "Brushes" application. She has been drawing one after another and experimenting with the different brushes, colors, etc. She didn't read a manual, she only learned where to press to bring up the menus and tools and she was on her way.

There have been countless blogs and articles describing the best applications for the iPad and it has been released for only 2 weeks, but that is enough to indicate where this device is taking the imagination and creativity of the developers, artists and content creators. Let's analyze what are the most important trends that we'll see on iPad applications:

- Music: yes, you have downloaded and played with "Magic Piano" from Smule, the creators of "Ocarina" (my favorite music app for the iPhone) and even though you can play piano-like, it is more of a game than an instrument, but the experience of playing with other people in the world in duet mode is compelling (just like chatroulette but for music). But this is just the beginning. Yonac just released an updated "Mini Synth" and that is one of many examples of how the iPad can become a real musical instrument. It was fun to play with iPhones and iPods and perform songs with the different instruments, but I can certainly see iPads in music concerts where musicians will play it live using new forms of expression, like the "Thereminator". There will be music applications that will exploit the touch surface to create new instruments by way of touching and moving tour fingers.

- News and Magazines: as you can see, the top free applications are all the top news sites. "USA Today", "NYTimes", "WSJ", etc. have their own iPad specific application and this is just the beginning of a new way of distributing content, being it articles, photos, video and even ads. There have been lots of teasers and videos showcasing "Wired" magazine and others and how they plan to design new was if interacting with this type of content.

- Books: the iBook store is a nice addition to the ebook market, but for me it all started with the Kindle, and basically with the Kindle software, not the hardware. I don't own a Kindle device, but I have the Kindle software installed on PCs, Macs, iPhones and iPods around the house and I can read my books anywhere, on any of those devices and the syncing just works. I also have lots of books in epub format that had installed on "Stanza" and that now look much better in the iBooks application. But the main breakthrough on books for electronic devices like the iPad will be Book Apps, like "Alice for the iPad" or the "Toy Story" iPad ebook App. These are two examples of how the tables like the iPad will change the way we think of books. These are things that previous ebook readers couldn't do, but the iPad, thanks to the software, can take this to a new level. So now, books could have audio, video, games and all kinds of interactivity if the author chooses so. This does not mean the end of classic books at all, it just means that there are new opportunities to innovate and create a new category of book. The "Toy Story" book App has the functionality that the "Tag" system from Leapfrog has in a special pen device. Now you can have the same functionality in a special book app for kids, where they will just swipe the finger over the words and the application will read them back, along with many other functions.

- Video: if you have not been amazed by the "Netflix" App and the "ABC" App, then take a look to the "Air Video" app. Being able to stream video from the internet, from your computers in your home network and soon from your TV via the Slinbox player is incredible. Even though you can do some of this with your iPhone or iPod, the iPad is the best device to watch video in any form. The quality of the screen along with the size of the iPad make it for a really portable video device. I cannot wait for the folks at "Boxee" to release an iPad specific App.

- Knowledge: the fact that you can have the complete project Gutenberg at your fingertips, including all the classic masterpieces is amazing by itself. But you can also have "Gray's Anatomy", the classic anatomy book that my brother has the original and is one of the biggest books ever. It is on the iPad complete. You can watch to the stars with "Star Walk" and learn about the universe, while looking at it. "The Elements" showcases the complete table of elements augmented with pictures, links to the web, video, graphics, etc. And specialized applications like "IMDB", "Wikipanion" and "NPR" that give you a much better experience of interacting with content that is available on the web but in a much easy to use format.

- The Web: yes, we have a browser everywhere... in our laptops, desktops, phones and iPods. But the experience of browsing the web on the iPad is like nothing else. As I mentioned before, the fact that older people can "hold the web" in their hands on the iPad is a game changer. The fact that you can interact with web sites, newspapers, articles, photos, video, encyclopedias and everything that the web offers with your hands and fingers is what changes everything. Suddenly you forget that you are dealing with a device and concentrate on dealing with the content. And applications like "Pandora" which are already great experiences on the web or other devices just work better on the iPad.

And finally, some thoughts regarding the iPhone OS and the design of the iPad. Now we know that the next version of the OS will bring multitasking to the iPad along with many more features, but regardless of that, in the state that things are now the iPad is amazingly fast. Yes, it would be nice to have Pandora or Skype running in the background while doing something else, but the simplicity of the iPhone OS coupled with an incredibly fast A4 processor designed by Apple make the iPad incredibly fast. I can be checking email, click a link and Safari opens immediately, then I can go Home and to Mail again and it is as fast as doing an ALT-TAB on my laptop. Switching between apps, navigating the web, starting and stopping apps is so fast that you don't think about it. Then we have the screen which has much better touch response that the iPhone or iPod. It is probably because of the size but you can feel the accuracy and responsiveness on anything you do and that just makes a world of difference.

And I couldn't leave out the controversy of Flash and all the surrounding issues. Flash does not work on iPhone OS because of Cocoa Touch. Apple created this API for handling touch devices and this is basically where all the magic happens. You cannot have a Flash application running in the device if it does not how to work with touch gestures. As simple as that. Many people complain about the lack of support for Flash on the iPhone OS, but they mainly think about Flash video, which as you have heard HTML5 now addresses and the iPhone supports. But Flash applications on the iPhone simply cannot work because they don't know how to handle touch. Then in comes the issue of developing in Flash, Java or other languages and "compile" for the iPhone OS. This has been debated all over the web, but the issue is simple: the iPhone OS is an OS for consumer devices, not a full fledged OS and requires the use of optimized code and libraries, and having an ecosystems of meta-libraries on top of the OS will just lower the quality of the applications and create issues with incompatibilities and feature support. I think that is the reason Apple wants to make sure that only using Objective-C (and C and C++ underneath) are the languages that you can use for developing iPhone OS apps.

A lot of people have complained it doesn't have a camera (it will), that the screen is too bright for reading, that has a limited functionality in the OS, that the keyboard is not usable for heavy typing, that it is too heavy, that doesn't have USB... etc. There will always be someone that wants more and is never satisfied. But the fact of the matter is that Apple has been working on this for years, they have invested countless hours on research and development and have really bright people in the engineering and design. This is the beginning of a new era in computing devices. It is just a start. Nothing is perfect at the beginning, but I think this is a great start. This is something that has been heralded for years, starting with Microsoft who has been talking about tablet computers for 10 years. Watching little kids interact with the device makes me think that this generation will grow used to touch devices like the iPad and the iPhone. They are growing up with a new way of interfacing with computing devices and this is going to change a lot of things.

The computer has finally moved from the desk, to the lap and into the hands of the user. And this changes everything.