Journalists and bloggers seem divided when it comes to Apple's recently announced "iPad". Some seem disappointed that after all the hype leading up to the launch of the so-called "Jesus Tablet" it didn't turn out to be an event akin to the coming of the Messiah! Many have passed it off as just "an oversized iPod touch" or "a laptop without a keyboard" or highlighted its shortcomings such as a lack of multi-tasking and Adobe Flash support. On the other side of the fence loyal followers of the Cult of Apple are quick to evangelise the product, hailing the beginning of a new era.
Now that the dust has settled a little I'd like to take my seat on the fence between these two camps and share some opinions about what I think is great about the iPad and ultimately what I'd like to see replace it.
The first thing you might notice about the iPad is that it demonstrates exactly the kind of minimalist design and engineering excellence we've come to expect from Apple products. This beautiful device is thin and light and is made from an aluminium unibody case and high quality glass multi-touch screen. Apple has developed its own custom components like the ARM-based "A4" CPU and a lithium-polymer battery to squeeze out every last drop of performance and battery life.
Something I find very interesting is the way in which Apple has re-designed the user interface of practically its entire Mac software suite to be better suited to this new form factor. Photos are presented in stacks which can be exploded with a pinching action, eBooks are stored in a bookcase and can have their pages turned with a natural dragging action and the address book is presented as an actual book. The user interface uses real world objects as design metaphors much more successfully than we've seen before.
The incredibly tactile nature of this new mode of interaction certainly makes for impressive demos and initial reactions from people who have used the device indicate it's just as impressive to use in real life. For the first time it's really feasible to reach out and touch your media directly on the screen rather than being separated from it by a perpendicular plane of interaction on your desktop or laptop keyboard and pointing device.
If nothing else, I think the iPad is going to change how we think about user interface design. Apple's UX design guidelines for the iPad talk about styling UI components to be an integral part of the graphical design of software to make them less conspicuous and more of an integral part of the "physical dimension" of the application. They also discourage modality and full-screen transitions, suggesting designers flatten their "information hierarchy".
Appliance, not Desktop
Of course tablet PCs have been around for many years, but the iPad really comes across as more of a versatile information appliance than a desktop PC. Microsoft tried to adapt their desktop environment to the tablet PC, but Apple has instead started from the base of the iPhone platform. The iPad is not a desktop computer but a tablet which can be instantly transformed into a wide range of tools for different types of information or task. User interfaces are not composed of "windows" of conventional UI elements like menus and buttons, they tend to more heavily use design metaphors of real-world objects which directly represent the content or task, with a single tool filling the screen at any one time.
The Ultimate Proprietary
I think the exceptional user experience achieved by Apple is down to the tight vertical integration of proprietary hardware, software and services. Apple makes their own components, develops their own software and delivers apps and content via their own services. They control nearly every part of the chain between the design, implementation and delivery of their products – including the content and apps consumed on them.
The downside of this tightly integrated approach is that it's an incredibly closed environment. If a software developer wants to develop software for the iPad, that software will not run on any device from any other manufacturer and will only be allowed to run on the iPad if Apple approves its inclusion in their own App Store. If a consumer wants to use a service from one of Apple's competitors, they may find that it's not possible because Apple has blocked apps from that provider. In other words, the iPad is ultimate proprietary computer.
If the iPhone is anything to go by, the app store model will be very successful for Apple in the medium term. People will flock to the iPad and its related services because of the superior user experience, and of course because they have Apple's name on them!
Why the Web can do Better
In the longer term lots of devices will inevitably emerge which imitate the iPad, in fact it has already begun. I think companies who attempt to a shoehorn a desktop environment into these devices will meet the same limited success of the Windows tablet PCs of old. However, I think a new breed of tablet devices descended from netbook and nettop form factors will eventually show more success. Mockups have already surfaced which hypothesise what a Google tablet running Chrome OS might look like for example. There will probably be a range of different devices based on a Linux kernel, but ultimately the user won't care what underlying OS they're using.
Emerging web standards like HTML5, SVG and X3D are going to make it possible in future to create web applications with the same kind of experience of Apple's iPad software suite. I think eventually this standards-based world and a Software-as-a-Service model will displace Apple's proprietary app store model. As seamless as they have made the experience, the app store model still fundamentally relies on users downloading and installing software on their local device. If they want to use the same app on three different devices they will have to install three times, and potentially pay three times as well!
Web applications have the advantage that they can be used from any web-enabled device and developers only need to write once, run anywhere. With the offline capabilities of HTML5 applications will work offline without needing to be installed and data will seamlessly be synced between the local device and the cloud.
In conclusion then, the iPad is an awesome device even if it is only a evolution rather than a revolution. In part due to Steve Jobs' "reality distortion field" and the preaching of the Cult of Apple, the iPad could be as successful as the iPod and the iPhone have been. Lagging behind their competitors in terms of raw features never hurt either of these devices, and with the apparent exceptional user experience of the iPad it's reasonable to think the same will be true of this latest addition to Apple's product line. New versions of the iPad will probably fill in these gaps anyway, once it becomes feasible to pack extra hardware in whilst retaining the low price point.
Once currently emerging web standards become widely supported and web application developers catch on to this new style of UI design, web applications may displace the app store model currently used by Apple. At this point the tablet computer itself could become more of a commodity, turning into a web client rather than a platform for local applications.
I look forward to a time when the web can provide an experience as rich and intuitive as Apple has made the iPad.