The truth about iPad: It's only good for two things

The Apple iPad is a landmark product, but it's also imperfect and fairly limited. In fact, there are only two areas where it really shines.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

Because of the iPad, 2010 will likely be remembered as a landmark year in computing. It will rank right up there with 1984 when the graphical user interface debuted to the masses in the first Macintosh, and 1995 when the launch of Windows 95 made PCs much easier to use at a time when a lot more people were about to buy computers to connect to the Internet.

However, as groundbreaking as the iPad is, its capabilities sometimes get exaggerated -- not the least of which by Apple itself, which repeatedly refers to it as "magical" and "revolutionary."

I've been using the iPad since launch day on April 3, trying lots of different apps and experimenting with lots of different scenarios. I have honestly had mixed feelings about the device throughout the experiment, switching back and forth between the amazement of holding a full screen of computing power in a single hand and yet frustrated over its awkwardness or inability to accomplish some of my most basic and important computing tasks such as writing an article (inserting links and images are painful at times) and navigating interactive websites that use Flash or some of the advanced Javascript and AJAX actions that make sites act more desktop apps.

Flash doesn't work at all on the iPad and AJAX is supported but mouse interactions such as hover events don't work since there's no mouse pointer on the iPad and elements such as the drag-and-drop functionality for moving items in your Netflix queue, for example, often don't work properly since they were not designed with a multi-touch UI in mind.

When people want to chat with me about technology, the iPad is naturally one of the hottest topics right now, but I've typically been evasive about it. I'll mention a few of the things it does well or a couple of my favorite apps, but avoid giving a definitive opinion on it. That's because I haven't been completely sure what I think of the thing.

To my close friends and colleagues, I've been more candid. I've often said, "The iPad is only good for two things: Reading and Scrabble."

Well, I've now come to some longer-term conclusions about the iPad and I have to say that my initial quip about the two things wasn't too far off, although I've adjusted No. 2.

Hear me out on this one. Below is a further explanation of my two things.

1. Reading and viewing

The iPad often gets called a "consumption" device. But since it's not really that useful as a music or video player, so I would narrow that definition even further and say the iPad is primarily a reading device.

The iPad isn't great for long videos such as movies because it's heavy and awkward to hold for long periods of time. If you have some kind of stand of it, then it's great, but at that point you might as well have a laptop. It's a similar story for using the iPad as a music player. It just feels big and bulky compared to using an iPod or a smartphone for music, podcasts, and audiobooks.

But, as a reader, the iPad is admittedly amazing because of its brilliant full color screen, touch-based interface, and long battery life. And when I say "reader" I mean reader in the broadest sense of the term. As you'd expect, it's great for reading news, books, static web pages, emails, long PDFs, and business documents. (For just reading books, the Amazon Kindle is still superior, but for omnivorous readers the iPad is the new king.)

But there's a longer list of things that I include in "reading," such as weather, calendar, business dashboards, and to-do lists. In truth, reading covers a lot of stuff, and the iPad is great at those reading and viewing tasks.

And, the fact that it's instant-on and you can flip the screen around to show a colleague a web page, a chart, or a document just like you would a piece of paper gives the iPad a much more natural feel and a huge advantage over a traditional laptop for those business professionals who spend a lot of time in meetings.

From that perspective, I can see why many executives such as SAP chairman Hasso Plattner are so infatuated with the iPad. On a business trip a couple months ago where I spent a few days hopping from meeting to meeting (the way business executives spend nearly every day), I left my laptop in the hotel room and only carried the iPad. It was ultra-convenient to just flip out the iPad to compare calendars for follow-up meetings, show off a few charts, and co-surf a few web sites without having to whip out a laptop or fire up a projector. It was also liberating to walk in without a laptop bag slung over my shoulder.

2. Multi-touch interaction

As I said, the iPad is not a great device for writing articles because inserting links and images is inefficient compared to using a PC. I'm not saying the iPad is bad for typing. It's not. I hold it in two hands and use the vertical keyboard with my thumbs like a smartphone when entering short stuff like URLs, searches, and quick email responses. I set it down on a table and flip to the horizontal keyboard when I need to type longer stuff, and I've written some long articles on it during flights (and the iPad was much nicer to work with on a tray table than a standard laptop). But, when I got back I had to open up the new article on my laptop and add the links and images afterward, which wasn't very ideal or particularly efficient.

So let's just say the iPad is adequate at text entry. It's certainly less effective than a normal computer but it gains a few points for portability and instant-on. However, the area where the iPad surpasses the traditional PC and Mac experience is in what I'm going to call "multi-touch interaction."

There is where apps -- and even web pages, potentially -- can take advantage of the quick, easy, and intuitive qualities of the multi-touch interface. And since the iPad is the largest mass market multi-touch device we've seen, it has started to show us the potential for touch interfaces to make computing much more approachable for the masses than the PC ever did.

The most obvious place this shows up right now is in games. Hence, the Scrabble example. It literally takes seconds to learn how to play Scrabble on the iPad and then pass "the board" between players. It's the same thing for games like Angry Birds or Paper Toss. These and other iPad games have proven that the touch UI is an effective and intuitive input mechanism.

A number of savvy companies have picked up on this and are going to use touch-based tablets like the iPad to streamline business processes. Imagine business forms where people can quickly touch to select options and fill in short text snippets with the on-screen keyboard. Think of field professionals who can go to on-site meetings, show clients photos of their options with the iPad, and then interactively guide them through the order process and have the order placed and ready to be scheduled before leaving the meeting. This is why we're seeing the iPad breaking through in the enterprise, and why we're hearing more and more about iPad deployment examples like this one from a TechRepublic member in Australia.

The 1.0 tablet

I've learned two things about my own computing habits during the iPad experiment:

  1. It drove home that I'm a content creator and so I have far more intense input needs than most users (90% have light input requirements). Most of them won't have the same hang ups that I have about building content with the iPad, but they will be frustrated by the same web page incompatibilities due to Flash and AJAX.
  2. Because I use computers so much and have for so long, I have deeply ingrained habits and patterns that are very efficient, so it was difficult for something as different as the iPad to break into my daily routine. However, with repeated attempts, I found ways in which the iPad made me more efficient and freed me from having to wrestle with a bulkier laptop or laptop bag. It's also enabled me to read more and ingest more information, which has been an added benefit since we're all bombarded with so much info to process as part of life in the information age.

The other thing I had to remind myself recently about the iPad is that it is a 1.0 product. There's still a ton of room for this thing to improve based on user experiences and feedback, and I expect that we'll see some big strides in the next couple years now that the first touch-based tablet is in the hands of millions of people. The upcoming release of iOS 4.2, which will bring multi-tasking to the iPad will be an important step forward. Future UI improvements should make it easier to deal with images and links. Websites that use heavy Flash and AJAX will either offer alternative usage scenarios for iPad, or the iPad will eventually find effective ways to incorporate them into its matrix.

All in all, I've come to the conclusion that the iPad is a helluva good effort for a 1.0 device. It's far better than the 1.0 version of the iPhone (partly because it stands on the shoulders of the iPhone).

By saying it's only good at two things, what I'm really saying is that there are only two areas where it beats a standard PC at this point. But, in those two areas, it knocks it out of the park.

Also read

My favorite iPad apps

If you'd like to see a list of the iPad apps that I use the most, here are photos and short descriptions of my top 20 apps that take advantage of the iPad's strengths.

This article was originally published by TechRepublic.

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