iPad: The Greatest Disappointment in Human History

Yesterday I sat and watched liveblog coverage of the long-awaited announcement from Apple. To no one’s great surprise, they unveiled their newest device, the iPad. While everyone knew this tablet device was coming, everyone had wondered exactly what it would be. Apple has high standards when it comes to devices like this one and I, for one, was prepared to be amazed. Alas, I was disappointed. iDisappointed, even. I’m ready to declare that the iPad is the greatest disappointment in all of human history (at least since The Phantom Menace).

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iPadLet’s get this out of the way. The thing looks really nice. It’s a giant iPod Touch–glossy, pretty, aluminum. Visually, it presses all the right buttons. We may have been hoping for something a little more innovative in form, but nevertheless, the Touch works well, so there’s no reason to think that the iPad won’t work just as well on a macro scale. We know as well that the operating system will be solid, that the app store will provide many excellent applications, etc, etc. What the iPod Touch does well when it’s not being an ultra-portable device (or what the iPhone does when it’s not being a phone or an ultra-portable device), the iPad should do just as well.

But it could do a whole lot of things a whole lot better if only Apple had not deliberately handicapped the device. They did two things that annoy me to no end and make me declare it a massive disappointment. First, they held back features so they could play the hero when they add them later on. And second, they deliberately left out features, handicapping the device, so you would have to continue to buy their other hardware.

Features They Held Back
We know that Apple has a long road map for future versions of this product. They are a company of smart people who have to look far beyond product launch. So we know that in an office somewhere they have a document outlining iPad 2, iPad 3, and so on. And we understand that they have a product spec arranged for each of them. Apple knows what they will add to each of the next three or four generations of the product. This is well and good. But it seems evident that many of these innovations are things they could easily have added this time but held back deliberately so they could add them to future generations.

So rather than allow future versions to be driven by genuine innovation, they can assuage their users by adding features that should have been there from the beginning. In future versions they will add a camera. But the camera should be there now. What possible reason is there not to have a camera now? In future versions they will add more storage capacity. But it should already have more storage capacity. In future versions they will add some great new input abilities. But that should have been one of the fundamental features right from the start.

All of these things will come. But they will come as reasons to make us buy into future generations of the product. It was not for lack of ability that Apple did not include them this time around. It was just to wring more money out of us later on.

Features They Cut
That is one annoyance–that they handicapped the device so we would buy future versions. But they also cut obvious features of it so it would not replace any of our existing Apple devices. Though I understand this from a business perspective, it offends me as a consumer.

You can look at the iPad’s feature list and see all of the places they deliberately handicapped it in order to make sure that people wouldn’t buy it instead of one of their other products. Apple wants you to buy the iPad, but they need you to keep buying the MacBook (or iMac) and iPhone.

Here are just a couple of examples.

The iPad has no compelling input abilities beyond the on-screen keyboard or an external Bluetooth keyboard. And the device is really only as good as its inputs. The on-screen keyboard looks great, but I would expect it to be useful only for brief periods of time. You cannot use it effectively with one hand which in turn means that you need to lay the device on a surface in order to use it. But then you’ll find yourself hunching over the screen and that can’t be comfortable for long. You can use an (expensive) external keyboard, but then you need to be able to prop the device upright (probably using an expensive cover). And do you really want to bring an external keyboard to class? Or to a meeting? Where is the stylus so you can draw on the screen? Where is the input innovation? Why the lack of innovation? And all of this ensures that it will not replace the MacBook or the iMac. Further, the device still needs to sync with something, so it will be severely hampered as a standalone device. A student cannot head to college with only an iPad and an iPhone. He will still need something to sync them with.

The iPad has no phone abilities so it will not compete with the iPhone. I understand this decision as it vastly reduces the complexity of the device and its pricing. Plus, you’d look awfully silly holding a device that size against your ear. But what about giving us some kind of innovative way of using this as a communication device? Surely there is a way of using the Wifi and 3G capabilities to communicate with others. At the very least, offer some Skype-like ability and make that a key component of the device. But no, that would bring it into conflict with the iPhone.

It goes on and on.

Lost Opportunity
I wanted the iPad to do lots of neat things but to do one thing exceedingly well. Speaking personally, I wanted it to be an exceptional reading device. Why Apple didn’t position it as a reading device baffles me. Why didn’t they work with textbook manufacturers to make this the future of reading, the future of studying? Think of a dry history text that could come alive with interactive features (I know, I know. Neal Postman is rolling over in his grave. I’m not saying I agree with interactive learning like this–just surprised that Apple didn’t try it on us). This device could have been an amazing way of taking reading (which even Steve Jobs knows isn’t really going to go away) to the digital world. Kindle has tried and has done some good things. But the whole field is still vastly underdeveloped. Apple had its chance and, by what I can see, has completely blown it. Sure the iBook application looks pretty, but it does not look at all innovative beyond a few visual effects.

Apple’s lost opportunity was to create a device that did one thing amazingly, exceptionally, innovately well. Instead they chose to make a giant iPod Touch that I can’t carry in my pocket and that I can’t use to call my wife when I’m going to be home late. I can’t take it on my morning walk to listen to music. I can’t take it to a conference in place of my MacBook, either. Now there is a chance that I could throw it in my bag in place of my Kindle, but I don’t know if that’s likely to happen. After all, the Kindle does one thing and it does it well–better, I think, than the iPad. It can do it for two weeks, rather than eight hours and doesn’t require a monthly contract.

Even if the iPad was never going to be a Kindle-killer, Apple should have targeted it squarely at one audience. The iPad does not seem to have a really obvious audience. Who, exactly, were they pitching it to? Is it for students? Stay-at-home moms? Businessmen? They never said and I still don’t know. It seems to be a device without an obvious user. My guess is that they are hoping to sell it to Windows users who currently have neither an iPhone nor a MacBook (or iMac) but who want a taste of the Mac experience. But that’s just a guess.

Conclusion
I could go on with annoyances. There is no tethering between the iPad and the iPhone. The battery life is simply not sufficient (if they say ten hours, they probably mean six or eight with a bright screen and heavy use). There are so few input and output possibilities. I will stop there. No I won’t. How hard would it have been to smack an SD card slot in there? Seriously! It’s great to show a pretty photo application, but why not allow us to quickly and easily get the photos on there in the first place.

I guess it comes to this. If they are to maintain their share price, Apple needs you to continue buying an iPhone and a MacBook (or iMac). Thus they cannot allow the iPad to replace either one of them. And so it is a device between. It’s a device lots of people want, but nobody needs. What Apple should have done is to create a device that is spectacularly good at one thing–one thing that neither of the other devices does particularly well (like reading!). Instead, they went with the kitchen sink approach, trying to make it passably good at everything–things that the iPhone and MacBook do just fine.

I’m disappointed because the iPad could have been so much more. There are areas of my life it could have jumped into and done well, justifying its cost. As it is, I don’t see that happening. I’ll grant that ultimately I’ll need to use it and experience it to really know for sure. Maybe the experience of it will show me how and where it can find its place in my life (as happened with the iPhone). I would not be half surprised if, in the end, I end up with one (at least for R&D purposes). But it is going to take a very compelling argument for it to change my mind and find its place.

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At the outset of this article I took a cheap shot at The Phantom Menace. It’s an easy target. So maybe we should dig deeper. Why don’t you fill in the blank.

Apple’s iPad is the biggest disappointment since _______________.

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