Smitten by the possibilities of the iPad

We’ve never really been all-out gadget geeks here at UM but here I am smitten by the possibilities of the iPad. All predictions suggest this will be the year of the slate computer with a number of devices already announced and no doubt more in the works.

The iPad is of course the one getting most of the attention but the HP slate and a few other demo’d at CES also have lots of people talking. Great side-by-side feature comparison tables can be found elsewhere and lots of people have written about why the iPad isn’t for them. Notably absent from the iPad are:

  • no webcam (i.e. no video chat)
  • no multitasking (i.e. you can’t create a document and browse for reference material at the same time)
  • no USB
  • and of course, no Flash

The significance of these concerns ranges from minor to show-stopping depending on who you speak with. Personally, I was quite relieved to learn that the iPad wouldn’t include a camera. I very recently purchased a cute little netbook for my wife to Skype, surf and email with while out of town. Without a camera, the iPad as announced wouldn’t invalidate that purchase.

So why then am I still drawn to the iPad? What Apple is attempting is to create a whole new category of device – the living room computer. Most of us haven’t realized we need a living room computer and it remains to be seen whether we ever will, but given the frequency with which I tote my Macbook around the house I can see the possibilities. This is different from the many unsuccessful attempts that Microsoft has made over the years to replace the laptop or desktop with a fully featured table. The iPad isn’t a replacement, it’s different.

The big difference between the iPad and the HP slate is Windows 7 – an operating system which supports multi-touch but isn’t itself designed as a touch interface. All the interactions are still designed around mouse and keyboard; touch is simply a replacement for the mouse. The interaction metaphors remain the same, and the menus, toolbars, checkboxes, radio buttons, dropdown lists etc. are all the same. The iPhone OS, by contrast, was designed from the outset to be a touch interface, optimized for direct manipulation by hands, not mice or other surrogate pointing devices.

To take advantage of Windows 7’s multi-touch capabilities,  some companies are using Silverlight, Adobe Air or Flash to create an immersive experience. Last week at TED, Wired demonstrated its fabulous looking Wired Reader built with Adobe Air. Unfortunately, on Windows 7 devices, the immersive experience ends when the program is exited. Outside of these individual programs, you still have to interact with the Windows UI using touch.

Several promised devices will run Google’s Android operating system, which like the iPhone OS has been touch-based from the outset. I have no experience with Android yet but there isn’t really one Android; instead, each company seems to have its own proprietary customization. Fully recognizing my prejudices here, I fear that the Android slates may, like many Google products, be strong on technology but weak on pleasurable human interaction. I imagine a slate to be a recreational device, not a professional one, so my bias leans toward Apple.

The caveat here is that none of these slates actually exist yet, at least not in public. This is all speculation until, or if, they make it to market. Nevertheless, while this first generation iPad has considerable shortcomings, I am very curious to get my hands on one.