Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why the iPad will be a success

As an Engineer, I have come to accept that the design of any product is a byproduct of the tradeoffs you're willing to take to make something. This is a blog post on the tradeoffs Apple made in making the iPad.

First I have to confess, my fingers are motor programmed -- It's nearly impossible for me to type iPad without typing iPod first. Thanks goodness the "A" and "O" are on opposite corners of the keyboard, otherwise I'm sure I'd forever be fighting my iPhone over that one.

So it's here. Like it or hate it, the box is open, iPad is here. I'm already getting some mixed reviews. I've seen some that think it will be awesome, some who think it's lame. Interestingly, this isn't "split along party lines." I've seen Apple fans excited for it. I've seen Apple fans less than excited for it. Same for my Windows-using friends. Some are excited for it, some are not impressed at all. Me? I'm with John Gruber -- the iPad isn't the end all (Which is how the haters are looking at it -- I don't get this thing, so it's stupid), it's just the beginning of something much larger.

So, let me tell you why the iPad will be a success.

1 - First of all, none of this is new.

I have been in the Mac community for about 6 years now. Some of you have been using Mac's since 1984, to you, I seem like a young-tot -- but Apple has gained a TON of popularity in the past 2-3 years...so even though I have only been in this for 6 years (As opposed to 26), I've seen a few things. I remember OS X before Spaces. Or Exposé. I remember Safari with brushed metal and Finder with Pinstripes. I remember when Bonjour was called Rendezvous, when Airport wasn't extreme, and when a PowerBook G4 with 512 MB of RAM was thin and powerful.

Off the top of my head, I can remember the introduction of the G5, the Aluminum PowerBooks, iMac G5, iPod Mini, iPod Nano. I was on my mission when iPhone came out, but I was back for MacBook Air.

EVERY time Apple releases something, tons of people complain.

At $249, only $50 cheaper than the third Generation iPod, everybody said the Mini was sure to fail. Instead it was a smashing success, quickly surpassing sales of it's bigger brother.

Many people said the MacBook Air was too expensive, and would be a market failure. While I will admit I don't see them often, I see 10 or 20 MacBook Airs for each Dell Adamo (Oh wait, I've never seen a Dell Adamo. Ever.) or Lenovo X-series laptop.

I'm not immune to this. When I first heard about the iPhone, I laughed out loud, and wondered out loud who would want to spend $500 on a phone with a glass front. Just over a year later, I would purchase my first iPhone -- for $249, or a whopping $100 cheaper than my first iPod.

About the only thing I can remember Apple announcing that brought universal praise was the switch to Intel chips -- and I'm sure the only reason I recall that bringing universal praise is that the details have faded over time.

This armchair quarterbacking...it's not new. Apple is not a company motivated by fear, they do what they want, and they only do things that they intend to do well.


2 - But what about the price. For $499, I could have a Netbook, or even a small laptop with some kind of Celery processor.

Have you ever used a NetBook? They are impossibly small, and having such a small computer is something very awesome -- don't get me wrong...but you can't get as much done on a NetBook as you can on a real laptop. This is where it gets very interesting. People want to compare the iPad to NetBooks, saying that NetBooks can do more. To some extent that's true, but I would say that 98% of what a netbook is going to be used for, the iPad can do just as well. If not, in many cases, better. This brings me to my next point.

3 - The experience will be awesome

I'm seeing a lot of people grumbling that this runs iPhone OS. Let's address this, shall we?

I already know what you're thinking, but do me a favor and ignore the fact that iPad doesn't multitask for just a minute. Will you do that for me? Thanks. I promise we'll address that, just set it aside for a second. Apple is claiming 10 hours battery life on that thing. 10 hours! Apple is not a stupid company. Apple had a skunkworks team running OS X on intel chips for years before they decided they had to make the jump. If you think they made a "selection matrix" (Which is engineer-speek for a spreadsheet) weighing the Pros and Cons of running a watered down Snow Leopard vs a beefed up iPhone OS, you can stop thinking that now. We may never know for sure, but I'd be willing to bet the farm that Apple has been running iPhone OS-based tablets side-by-side with Intel/OS X based tablets for months, even years. Obviously they were getting a better experience running a beefed-up iPhone OS.

Remember when I said Apple doesn't intend to do anything unless it can do it well? I know people were wishing for MacBook Pro sized power in a MacBook Air package for iPod Nano pricing. Those people will never be happy.

Seeing the direction they took with the iPad, I can see why a watered down OS X just wasn't the answer. You'd need a more powerful CPU in there, that would mean a bigger tablet, less battery life, more heat, and fans. Even at that, you'd probably be stretching the CPU pretty thin. You'd get an experience that was ok, but with little headroom.

By using iPhone OS, they traded a theoretical better experience (In using Snow Leopard) for a truly better day-to-day experience, and one with a lot more headroom. If there's one thing the press has already noticed, it's the speed of this thing. Quote John Gruber:

But: everyone I spoke to in the press room was raving first and foremost about the speed. None of us could shut up about it. It feels impossibly fast.

I had an original iPhone. It worked great, but they were on the bleeding edge with that thing, and there wasn't a lot of headroom. This was most evident when, say, you'd have music playing, you'd be in Safari, and a new email message would come in. Your music would sputter to a stop (and the keyboard would become unresponsive) so that the phone could muster up the "bling" sound for new email. Then everything would go back to working. The iPhone 3GS has none of that. It's snappy and responsive all the time. Even when your music is playing.

Instead of stretching something to it's limits, Apple put the iPhone OS on a processor that' more than capable of handling it. A snappy and responsive UI is the result.

Finally, as great as OS X is, it's not designed for touch. iPhone OS is. I used some tablet PC things at CES. If you're going to be using touch, you want an OS designed for touch. For example, cramming stuff into corners (Like the spotlight search) makes sense with a mouse interface. You can whip your mouse up there really easy, and even if you overshoot, your mouse is stopped by the edge of the screen. If you don't believe me, just activate the hot corners on your Mac, and then sit a stranger down at your computer and watch them flip out when they accidentally activate exposé and Dashboard.

In touchland, however, corners are a terrible place to cram things. On the crappy tablet PCs running Windows, bezel gets in the way of you touching the inset screen. Apple flush-mounts their touch surface, thankfully, but any kind of case with a lip makes the corners harder to touch.

iPhone OS is already designed for touch.

I am displaying a gross hindsight bias here, but I have to say, iPhone OS just makes a lot more sense.


4 - The experience will only get better

The iPhone went for over a year without copy paste. It eventually got it. iPhone OS will eventually get multitasking. This I am sure of. Apple can only do so many things at once, and to them it was more important to get the iPad out to market than to add multitasking to iPhone OS. Give it time. It will come.


5 - iPad will be a compelling extension of your desktop Mac (Heck, my mom could have one)

At CES we saw a lot of interesting things. One of them is that the iPhone/iPod touch is becoming an extension of everything. It controls TV setup boxes, home automation systems, even your car.

ProRemote is a $149 app that replicates a portion of the functionality of a $1499 control surface on an iPhone/iPod touch. It becomes an extension of your computer when running a program like Soundtrack Pro, because moving virtual sliders on your iPhone is significantly easier than point point point click click clicking on your Mac.

While it would be nice to run Final Cut Pro or Lightroom or Photoshop on the iPad, the computing power just isn't there yet. I can see lots of applications where the iPad becomes an extension of your computer. Imagine having a photo on your MacBook Pro's screen in Lightroom, and all the sliders to make adjustments on the photo down on your iPad. Your MacBook Pro would still be doing all the heavy lifting, but using the iPad would both clear up screen real estate so you could see your photo larger, and give you a much easier way to make lots of minute adjustments.

Imagine having Final Cut Pro running on your Mac, and FCP Remote on your iPad. On your Mac's screen? A split view of the viewer (Where you preview video clips) and the canvas (Where you preview the actual project you're working on). On your iPad? You'd have all your other FCP stuff, like the timeline and clip bin.

The other thing that really makes sense for these is that, in both cases, doing hours of photo or video editing while looking down in your lap would strain your neck. Having a touch-screen desktop screen sounds nice, but would strain your arm. This dual-screen setup, where the iPad becomes a literal interactive extension of your Mac, gives you the best of both worlds. You're still looking where it's comfortable -- at your computer screen -- for the most part, but you can pull the iPad down into your lap where it'd be most comfortable to use.

If I had $3,000, I could drop $1,500 on a Mackie Universal Control to help speed things up in editing in Final Cut Pro and another $1,500 to drop on a Euphonix to help in the color correction process. In the scenario I've outlined above, I'd need nothing more than an iPad. What's more outside of Final Cut the Mackie does me no good, but outside of Final Cut I can still do a lot with the iPad.

6 - It really does make a compelling desktop alternative.

Also, thinking back to CES, I took my 15" Laptop -- and what did I use it for? Practically nothing. We didn't want to pay $17 a night for WiFi, so we just used our iPhones instead. The iPhone worked great, it just felt a little cramped after awhile. An iPad would have felt even better, and instead of paying $17 for hotel WiFi, I would have just fired up $14.95 for a month of 3G service.

As a student, I still do way too much mobile to give up my MacBook Pro. For example, just this morning, I was editing video on campus, in the library, with my MacBook Pro and a 2.5" FireWire hard drive, which is powered from my laptop and needs no extra power brick. It was a beautiful thing. That said, under normal circumstances -- that is, when I'm not a full time student -- I hardly ever use anything close to the potential of my MacBook Pro when I'm away from my desk. A MacBook Air and an iMac is too expensive of an alternative for me, but an iMac and a iPad? That's a combination I think I could (eventually) pull off.

Especially, the iPad will work with any Bluetooth keyboard. I keep having these visions flash up in my head. Something like this (Hopefully a little cheaper though!), but with room for my iPad on the right, and a bluetooth keyboard build into the left side, with a stiff hinge in the middle so that, if I want, I can use the iPad just like a 9" laptop.

My mom has my old computer, a PowerBook G4. She does eMail and Web. She does word documents sometimes. She doesn't understand how to use a filesystem. For mom, I can totally see her using an iPad as her primary computer. I'd give her the little camera hookup thing so that she could bring her photos onto the iPad when she was on vacation, and we could sync her iPad to my dad's MacBook for backup.


Did I mention that the $99 iPhone 3G sells like hotcakes, even though you can do a lot more with the $199 iPhone 3GS? Did I mention the iPad 16 GB is only $20 more than a Kindle DX.

Frankly, I think this thing is going to be a huge success -- if not in it's first revision, in it's second revision for sure. You can count on it.

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