Business, Media

Apple’s iPad: yep, it’s a couch thing

By Branko Brkic 28 January 2010

The name is a disappointment, and some of the technology decisions are pretty weird. But Apple's iPad is an interesting device. Will it kill the laptop? No. Could it be a great home entertainment device? Absolutely. Just don't buy the first one.

Apple doesn’t want us to describe it as such, but it’s an overgrown iPhone. Unless you buy the version without 3G data capability (which just uses WiFi instead), in which case it is an overgrown iPod Touch.

The iPad is one giant touch screen. It has exactly five buttons, three of which control volume. The other major control is an accelerometer; like any decent smartphone it knows which direction it is pointing in, so it can change the screen from portrait to landscape for you. That also comes in handy for some games, but more on that later.

Photo: Doing any real work with an on-screen keyboard will be a problem… (Reuters)

The most exciting thing about it is iBooks, a bookstore that makes the iPad into a rival to Amazon’s Kindle. A handful of publishers have already signed up to sell their books this way – HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster among them – and newspapers and magazines are rushing to develop the necessary software to get in on the action. The major unanswered question is the nature of digital copy protection the iPad will use; whether it will be restrictive enough to keep publishers happy but open enough not to screw buyers.

Like Amazon, Apple isn’t starting from scratch. It has a huge customer base for its iTunes music store (which still isn’t available in SA, mind you) with a proven model and mature systems. That makes it easy to sell books the same way it sells music, movies and TV shows.

Photo: … But the iPad is a sexy little beast. (Reuters)

Selling music to iPod users was a no-brainer. Apple’s attempts to do the same with video hasn’t worked as well, because nobody really wants to watch video on a screen the size of your palm. It’s Apple TV device, which sought to take that content to the living room screen, remains an abject failure. Now, however, there is big enough screen with a built-in store – and it is in colour. That means the iPad will wipe the floor with the Kindle and its kin when it comes to graphic novels, coffee table books or textbooks with colour illustrations.

Apple is also starting off a strong base when it comes to software. Just about everything that runs on the iPhone will run on the iPad, which makes for hundreds of thousands of applications that do all kinds of weird and useful things.

Naively optimistic, however, is Apple’s inclusion of its iWork software. That package of word processor, spread sheet and presentation creator isn’t even popular among the biggest of Apple fans. Will it do well on an underpowered machine that is meant to be used without a keyboard and mouse? The question isn’t even worth asking.

Apple anticipates, and has built for, people carrying presentations around on the iPad and plugging it into a projector in the boardroom. That may well happen, but the kind of people who need to give presentations typically need to work on their computers. Doing any real work with an on-screen keyboard is pure purgatory. So those iPad-toting businesspeople will also have to carry around the special dock, an accessory that adds a full-sized keyboard to the iPad. Or they could, you know, just use a device that already has a convenient keyboard included. Like a laptop. Which has the added ability of being able to run power-hungry software, not just special, scaled-down applications.

The iPad will be best suited to the lounge. It will make for an awesome universal remote control in a system that is set up right. It will make for a great casual web browser, and will even work for environments where text input is limited, like Twitter or Facebook. It is a good second screen on which the wife can watch a rom-com while the rugby is on (just don’t tell her that it’s a 4:3 screen, not a widescreen). It doesn’t have the superior graphics of an Xbox and twitch-type games will require extra input devices, but it’ll work well for casual gaming (think Solitaire and Tetris).

But if you don’t have the money to buy another one within a year, don’t buy the first generation. The iPad will also be a fantastic video-calling device, but doesn’t come with a built-in camera. That will be remedied by the second or third generation at the latest. Apple will also soon be replacing its custom processor for something with a bit more volume behind it, just as it did with the PowerPC. That will take longer to happen, though, so it may be a stretch to hold out until then.

By Phillip de Wet

Read more: Specifications from Apple, New York Times, Washington Post


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