Avi Greengart: Defending the iPad

Cruising around the gadget blogs over the past few days you would be forgiven if you think that the consensus opinion is that the iPad is a massive disappointment. I disagree. Here's why:Expectations vs. RealitySome expectations for the iPad were unrealistic, and some went well beyond that into the realm of fantasy. Many mainstream journalists wrote stories quoting "analysts briefed on the matter" which fueled these expectations. I can assure you with absolute certainty that, with the (possible) exception of its own board of directors, Apple briefed no one ahead of the launch. Nobody.

With expectations so high, the fact that the iPad is based on a familiar platform was perceived by some as a negative. I've heard a variation this from several people: "Sure, Apple introduced a tablet, but there was no new user interface technology or radical shift in capabilities. Sure, Steve called it "magical," but where's the magic? It's a giant iPod touch!" I'll concede that it's a giant iPod touch. However, I would argue that a successful tablet platform is more than magical – it's nearly miraculous, given the history of failures in this space.

Another reason many of the most technically sophisticated people (you know, like SlashGear readers) have reacted negatively because the iPad is a closed system geared towards mainstream users, and this crowd was really hoping for more of a PC experience, only Apple-ized. With the iPad, Apple isn't even trying to provide a full computing experience; instead it is building on the iPhone and iPod touch, adding eBooks, and hoping that application developers will fill in the gaps.

Hands-On Experience

Most of the critics have not actually used an iPad and are really commenting on the spec sheet, not the product. I got a bit of time on four different iPad prototypes, and that informs my opinion. The screen appears to be higher resolution than it actually is – movies were stunning. The iPad is also ridiculously responsive. Apple has always been good with user interface smoke and mirrors, such as displaying a graphic while an app is loading so that the user knows something is going on. But the iPad is really that fast by itself – apps that usually require a second or two to load, didn't. Some of the demo apps were quite compelling, and there should be thousands of iPad-specific apps at launch: any developer who is regularly updating their iPhone app will likely take a stab at creating a new version that they can sell to you all over again. You really get the sense for the device's potential when you use it.

That said, there are negatives, too. The iPad felt awfully heavy in my hand (a Kindle is much lighter), there is no comfortable typing angle, and typing on glass just isn't comfortable for long even if it's propped up somehow.

It's a 1.0 Product

Some of the criticism is fully justified – at least for now. The iPad is supposed to be the best possible web surfing device and it is intended as a media consumption device, yet it does not support Adobe Flash. That means an awful lot of web sites don't work properly, including Hulu, travel sites, and newspapers. I don't know if this is a philosophical decision by Apple (i.e., it's waiting for HTML 5 to kill Flash) or a timing decision (it's waiting until March to announce Flash support and get us all excited again ahead of availability), but Flash needs to be on there.

My other big problem with the iPad software is the lack of third party application multi-tasking. Oh, sure, I'd love cameras on the front and back, and any number of the rumored TV and cloud-based music services Apple was supposed to have introduced. But the key reasons for buying the iPad are web surfing, movie watching, eBook reading, and running apps. Again, this may be something Apple is planning to spring on us later as part of its annual iPhone update. I sure hope so, because running more than one app at a time is crucial for an app-centric device and is an area where Apple is seriously behind companies like Palm.

Finally, given that it's basically a giant iPod touch, it is a bit pricey. $499 may be half of what CNN reported it would cost, but that's still a lot of money for a device that by design does not replace your phone or your PC. (For comparison, $499 buys you a pretty nice 42" HDTV. Or a washing machine.) Still, as long as the iPad can find an audience at $499 without Flash and multitasking, Apple should be able to invest in adding capabilities and reducing the cost over time. That is exactly the pattern Apple established with the iPod (originally $399, now $149), the iPhone (originally $599, now starting at $99), and the iPod touch ($299, now $199). I think the iPad will easily clear that hurdle at launch; an oversized iPod touch is actually pretty cool and there will be plenty of app support. As Apple adds features and reduces cost over time, sales will explode, and we will have the first successful tablet platform.

Looking for a second opinion?  Check out Michael Gartenberg's column, Apple Redefines A Market and SlashGear's hands-on video with the Apple iPad.