Sunday, June 20, 2010

Is the Apple iPad just an overgrown iPod?

Since Apple announced the iPad in January it has sometimes been dismissed as just an extra large iPod Touch. After all they bear a striking resemblance – except for size – when you put them side-by-side. In part this is due to the minimalist design embodied in Apple products – there are few physical buttons on either and those that exist are small and hidden from view.

The devices also use a similar interface – a single glass surface displaying twenty to thirty icons with no physical keyboard (an optional wireless keyboard is available for the iPad). Most operations are initiated by touching or sliding one or more fingers on the surface. Neither has a built in phone and both can run most of more than two hundred thousand apps available in the Apple App store.

 But it turns out, size does matter. The iPod is certainly more convenient to take everywhere - measuring only 2.5 by 4.5 inches. The iPad is about the size of a thin book measuring 7.5 by 9.5 inches and weighing one and a half pounds. To see the important advantages the iPad has, you need to divide apps into three categories: those that run fine on both devices, those that work but not very well on the iPod and those that require the large iPad screen to function at all.

Navigation apps would be in the first category. Although a large display would certainly show a better map, the convenience of a small device while traveling will cause GPS devices and smarpthones to be the primary platform. Other well-established apps including contact management, calendaring and email will do quite well on the small screen. However, the power user with lots of contacts and lots of appointments will definitely appreciate the iPad calendar and contact applications.

Web surfing works on small devices but when you cross the line from simple searches to full blown web site display, the advantage of the large screen is obvious. Debates now concern whose display technology is best; debates which have been on going since the birth of the CRT display some forty years ago.

Possibly the most important use of tablet computers has barely begun. Successful tablets in the past have been used in commercial applications – health care being a primary example. When current tablet technology – including a touch screen interface and easy app installation – is adapted by the corporate world, tablet use will explode and the large screen iPad may be the device that propels this development. Windows based tablets will reignite the Microsoft-Apple wars of the past. This debate will become more complicated when you ask “which Windows mobile OS are you talking about? The company currently has four incompatible versions.

The ability to develop and display a presentation using an iPad illustrates the potential. The same 24-ounce device used for routine communication, web surfing, as well as corporate and private document retrieval can be used for boardroom presentations. Holding an iPad and changing slides with a finger like turning a page in a book completely alters the feel of the task. It is a change that presenters – other than die hard mouse fans – will quickly appreciate.

Make no mistake – the iPad is not perfect. One of its greatest strengths is currently its biggest weakness. The simple touch screen interface exists because the user does not interact directly with the operating system. You never navigate through folders to find documents; each app keeps track of its own files. Tap on an app such as Keynote – the Apple presentation program – and you immediately see a list of all Keynote presentations. Tap a file and it opens; nothing could be simpler. But, what if you have fifty or more presentations and they are all stored in one folder? This will be a problem.

The newest version of the iPhone operating system – referred to as iOS4 – introduces folders for applications. This allows you to have more than the current 180 apps on an iPhone and 226 on the iPad. It would make sense that this change will eventually lead to a folder structure in the applications themselves so organizing files within an app will be much easier. Whether or how Apple will address the fact that files of different types cannot be stored together – e.g. all files of any type associated with a project in one folder – is unclear.  Since PC and Mac users alike waste enormous amounts of time trying to “find stuff”, coming up with an elegant but powerful tablet based filing system will be critical.

While tablets of been around a long time, only since the iPad was released do you see them popping up everywhere. Owners show them off and answer a barrage of questions about what they do. They are rapidly changing from specialty PCs to mainstream products. A variety of devices will coexist for many years but as the power of tablets increases and apps continue to multiply, it is likely the iPad and others like it will take a bigger part of the information pie.

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