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iPad: Some Lingering Questions

While I would call the iPad launch a qualified success, I still have many lingering questions about the device going forward.
jason-perlow

While I would call the iPad launch a qualified success, I still have many lingering questions about the device going forward.

Much has been said in the last several days about the iPad launch by pundits, analysts and various other Weberati armchair quarterbacks. I only had two days over Easter weekend in which to play with the device before I had to go on a week-long business trip and leave the device at home, but it was more than enough time to become comfortable with (or the lack thereof) with this impressive piece of technology and form an intelligent opinion about it.

Rather than repeat many of the things that have been said by others who have had much more exhaustive experience with the device than I have in the last several days, I'd like to focus on a few subjects which I think have not been adequately addressed by my industry peers.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more

The Out of the Box Experience -- is iPad an Autonomous Computing Device or a Digital Companion?

After unboxing the unit and letting it charge for a few hours, the first thing I noticed was that after powering the unit on and hitting the main "home" button to bring up the main menu, I was presented with a screen that symbolically indicated that it wanted to be USB connected to a PC or a Mac with iTunes on it. There was absolutely nothing I could do to get past this issue, no combinations of taps or button pushes would allow me to get to the Home screen without at least an initial sync with a computer.

This of course got me thinking. What if you didn't own a computer? Isn't the purpose of the iPad to replace netbooks and other computing devices entirely? After all, there are many people who use iPhones and other smartphone devices as their primary computing device. These don't require a sync with a PC or a Mac in order to function. Syncing should be an optional process. The iPad, on the other hand, requires iTunes on a PC or a Mac for the entire provisioning process.

While I can certainly understand a need for iTunes for data transfer of music and other content, I'm not entirely sure it makes sense for it to be a prerequisite. The iPad certainly is a general-purpose computing device and it should be completely autonomous. I'd expect it to be able to self-provision itself with a new or existing iTunes account over Wi-Fi or 3G using its own iTunes UI, but this isn't the case.

I'd like to see future versions of the iPad not require external iTunes installations, lest not for the fact that I find iTunes on the Windows platform to be an unwieldy obese piece of code and extremely unstable. I spent about two hours on my Windows 7 machine diagnosing why the Apple Mobile Device Service was not functioning after I had upgraded from iTunes 9 to iTunes 9.1.

It had turned out that because I was using iTunes strictly for local music playback on my PC and for podcast downloads and had never hooked any kind of iDevice to it, the Mobile Device Service didn't upgrade correctly and I had to forcibly remove all Apple software from my PC and completely re-install iTunes from scratch.

This sucked. Four hours after receiving my iPad and doing a "sync" in which I told iTunes not to copy my music collection or any other data, I finally got to touch the home screen.

Bear in mind that I was actually able to diagnose and solve the problem because I have intensive knowledge of how Windows works, I knew how to pull corrupted drivers/services out of the registry, I know how deal with various quirks of the Apple software components and could actually figure out what was wrong. Not all end-users are savvy enough to do this.

The iPad should "just work". There was absolutely no reason to connect this thing to my PC for initial use whatsoever.

Third Party Service Integration is Borderline Hostile

Much of what makes iPad compelling is its ability to use online, cloud-based services in a fully seamless manner. But out of the box, it can require a lot of additional configuration to make the end-user experience fully integrated, especially if you use services that aren't Apple's.

My email and calendaring and contact management provider is Google. I use GMail and Google Calendar. Basic email setup with the iPad is easy enough, but address book integration with calendaring is another matter entirely.

The iPad Calendar application is designed for iCal-based services such as Apple's own MobileMe, and doesn't have an easy Wizard-based setup to make Google Calendar or Yahoo Calendar or any other third-party online calendar service sync with it.

I was able to make GMail and its Contacts work by following the instructions on how to sync email and calendar with Microsoft Exchange Emulation on an iPhone. It works exactly the same way on an iPad, but I wouldn't call this a one-button type of user friendly setup that you'd expect with an Apple product.

I expect to be able to provide my Google account and password in a dialog box in the Settings app and for stuff to "Just Work". Instead, I was tweaking settings for server accounts like on a desktop or laptop computer email application such as Outlook or Entourage.

This alone would have been annoying but acceptable, if it wasn't for the fact that the Calendar app also required it's own separate account setup  to make online CalDav sync work with Google.

GMail, GMail Contacts and Google Calendar weren't the only online services I had problems integrating. I also foolishly expected that the Photos application built into the iPad to allow me to browse my Flickr, Photobucket or Picasa Web albums, but that's not the case. Photos is designed to browse the local storage on the iPad and integrate with iPhoto on the Mac.

To browse my Flickr photos, I downloaded a 3rd-party Flickr viewer app for iPad which cost $3.99. It would have been nice if this was just a module that integrated with the regular Photos app and provided the external connectivity thru an API extension or web services, but instead it replaced it entirely. This seems wasteful and clunky rather than seamless the way I would expect this device to function with my online data.

Use of Background Processes Seems Inconsistent

While it's well known that users cannot multi-task with the iPad interface, the iPhone OS itself is most definitely able to run background processes and multiple threads. I noticed a few places where this is evident such as the email app which can poll and check for new email messages while another application is being used, with background downloads and installs from the App store, and with Whispernet e-book deliveries using the Kindle app.

However, there are several apps which I have seen that cannot perform housekeeping tasks running in the background. such as iPad's native integrated version of iTunes, which interrupts podcast downloads in progress if you leave the app. While it's certainly understandable that you wouldn't want the full blown UI running in the background, having to leave it open for several minutes just to download a 50MB one hour-length podcast seems to defeat the purpose of a device where multimedia content integration is a critical feature.

[UPDATE: It does appear that iTunes does download and executes other tasks in the background, but no notification "Bing" sound occurs or I wasn't around to hear it. The large podcast download did complete after I looked back at the download area a few days later.]

[UPDATE: It appears that the ability to multithread and multitask 3rd-party Apps will be addressed in the iPhone OS 4 update for the device in the Fall of 2010.]

Safari User Agent Weirdness and Ugly Home Screen Bookmark Icons

I was under the impression that the Safari code used on the iPad was more analogous to the version used on the Mac, but as it turns out it's closer to what is used on the iPhone. As such, it behaves in such a way to make web sites that it connects to using its User Agent string think it's an iPhone.

In a large number of cases I found myself being served with the "Mobile" versions of web sites with UI's that weren't optimized for use on a larger screen. It was like holding a giant 10" smartphone in my hand instead of a tablet computer. Until recently the ZDNet site served out the "mobile" versions for cell phones on iPads because it believed it was talking to iPhones. Our CBSi programmers really had to scramble early during the week to correct this.

Arguably, this will probably resolve itself over the next few weeks and months as the User Agent recognition code for these sites are modified, but this is still very annoying. It would have been nice if there was a way to alter the user agent string in iPad's Safari using a simple settings dialog, such as to emulate the Mac version or other popular browsers on a site-by-site basis while this transition is occurring.

User Agent weirdness isn't the only thing about iPad's Safari that annoys me. The function which allows you to put direct URL links on your Home Screen is nifty and handy, but it's butt ugly in implementation. Instead of being able to choose icon artwork for your desired site, such as being able to crop out a piece of the website logo artwork (as with creating FaceBook avatar icons) Safari snaps a screenshot of the page you are on and makes it the shape of an icon.

This looks absolutely horrible, and many of the website icons end up looking very similar and hard to find on the Home Screen if you have quite a few of them, especially if they are blog or news content oriented. Only in the case of Google's websites, such as with GMail, did specialized/customized artwork for the icon appear. Again, this is an issue of websites catching up with the technology, but this is going to take some time.

Regional Content Review is Inconsistent and Makes No Sense

In an earlier piece in late March I discussed the new Regional Content Review policies that have been instituted and what iPad owners can expect as a result of their use. Well, as it stands today, it turns out that Apple ended up being overly prudish in some cases and far too permissive in others -- their application of these rules are inconsistent from provider to provider.

In the case of Amazon's Kindle application, it doesn't appear that ANYTHING is currently under content review or restriction, and it doesn't look like the Parental Controls in iTunes can currently block explicit Amazon books from appearing on the device.

For example, I was able to purchase and download several books classified as "Erotica" that were filled with sexually explicit language and contained graphic descriptions of acts and included graphic and explicit imagery, and they appeared on the iPad without restriction.

However, in the case of Zinio's magazine reader application, I could buy a subscription to MAXIM with their online app, but not Playboy or Penthouse. When I browsed to the Zinio website and purchased subscriptions to these titles, they would not appear in the reader --- they required Flash in the browser (a non-starter on iPad's Safari) to view or Zinio's new Adobe Air application which also doesn't run on the iPad. I also received absolutely no warning from Zinio prior to purchase that these titles wouldn't be viewable on the iPad either, which I found rather annoying.

In other words, using Apple's moral calculus, purely textual and illustrative depictions of sexual acts are good, but human nudity in its natural form is bad. It could certainly be argued that exposing minors and young children to text-based and illustrative erotica completely unchecked is probably just as bad as what could be classified as "pornography".

There has to be a better way of handling this, and clearly Apple needs to treat content providers a bit more fairly and even handed.

I'm not sure if Amazon is being treated with favored nation status or more hands-off because of its huge size as a content provider, or if it is receiving less content oversight because its library of 450,000 books have less potential to be "visually" offensive or adult in nature that what comes from Zinio. I'm not sure I buy either of these theories because 13,000 titles at Amazon are "Erotica" classified and Zinio only has 2400 subscription magazines in total.

It would certainly be helpful if we actually knew what the criterion for content from being blocked from the iPad actually was, because to allow kids to read extremely explicit material in text form versus to prohibit them from viewing nudity they might otherwise see in classic art forms (with something relatively innocuous as French Vogue or Playboy) seems somewhat ridiculous.

Do you have lingering questions about the iPad as a new owner or prospective buyer? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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