Review of an Empty Canvas

(Since its launch a few weeks back, the iPad has been a hot topic at Constant Contact both internally and in questions and comments from customers. As part of its technology investigation charter, Labs has been coming to grips with what the iPad is all about. This is the first of two contrasting opinion pieces that Labs members have put together. As always, the opinions expressed herein are those of the individual author, not necessarily those of the company.)

It’s difficult to write about the iPad, because it isn’t really for any one thing. It has no specific, clearly-defined purpose. It’s an empty canvas, a piece of hardware that disappears in deference to the software running on it from moment to moment. It’s kind of like reviewing an empty sheet of paper, in that respect.

A $500 empty sheet of paper.

But I want to understand, and, well, Labs wants me to understand, so I’ve borrowed the company’s iPad to use at home over the last ten days. I’ve put aside my normal home computer – a desktop, should that matter – and have tried to use the iPad first for all of my home computing needs, falling back to my smartphone and computer only when absolutely necessary. And I think I do have a fair idea of what it is now.

It’s an e-reader for the Internet. A Kindle for web sites.

That’s what it is. That’s what it’s good at. That’s not all it’s good at, but that is what it’s best at.

Let’s step back. Physically, the iPad is most assuredly a large iPod Touch, but saying that doesn’t tell the whole story. The increased size changes the device in a few important ways, some beneficial, some not. The biggest benefit is that the increased display size provides the capability for increased interface complexity (and in fact it demands increased complexity, as anyone who’s run an iPhone app on it in a tiny little window knows). Where the iPhone and iPod Touch demand a user interface that spreads little bites of functionality across lots of screens, the iPad provides the space to support significantly more functionality across significantly fewer screens. It’s still not as information-dense as a laptop or desktop, but it’s a nice middle ground and it does much to increase the discoverability and approachability of the software it runs versus similar functionality on a phone-sized device.

Another obvious positive resulting from the increased display size is that I can comfortably read the device for a long period of time – maybe not all day, but certainly for longer than is comfortable on a smartphone. This matters quite a lot, because the device’s functions require it to be useful for disparate tasks over an extended period of time, so it really needs to actually be, you know, comfortable to look at.

But though it’s comfortable to look at, it’s not comfortable to hold. I found it too heavy for one-handed use, the backing too slippery, and it wouldn’t properly prop one-handed on a table without the bottom edge sliding around. I ended up either placing it flat on a table and looming over it, or sitting on a couch with one knee over the other in order to take its weight off of my wrist. Sounds like a minor complaint, I know, but it’s frustrating. It’s only very slightly more comfortable than a laptop in most living-room situations, and that’s ridiculous.

I’m told that buying a rubberized soft case would solve most of these tactile problems. I suppose that’s probably true, but so would hanging it on a lanyard around my neck.

Or Apple could just fix the hardware.

Another, far more frustrating downside to the large-iPod-Touch thing is the fundamental decision to base the device on the iPhone OS interface. I know I’m pretty much alone here, but the iPhone OS touch-based paradigm does not seem to me to work very well on a device of this size. Typing into the address bar in Safari on the iPhone or iPod Touch requires that I hold a few ounces of weight in my left hand and move my right finger and wrist in precise motions very close it. Typing into the address bar in Safari on the iPad, though, requires that I hold a pound and a half of dead weight tightly in my left hand and move my right finger, wrist, elbow, and sometimes shoulder in precise motions very close to it. I may not be explaining this well, so here’s an experiment to try: find a hardcover book that weights a few pounds. Hold it in front of you, comfortably, in your left hand.

Okay, now stroke it with your right hand for an hour.

Personal physical discomfort aside (!), the most important thing I can share about the iPad is that it succeeds at what I conclude is its primary goal: to make computing an incidental activity. Presently, lots of people – particularly non-laptop people, like myself – think about computing as an event: I’m going to go read my email. I’m going to go use the computer. I’m going to go over to it, and go online. The iPad obsoletes this progression because its form factor, battery life, and display fidelity are adequate for it to go days at a time just lying around in the kitchen or living room. The sheer convenience of it means I no longer need to go to the computer, sit down in the computer chair, use the computer, and then, when finished, move on to something else. Email can be checked while watching TV. A movie’s Wikipedia page can be checked from the couch while the movie is playing. A casual game can be played for a few minutes while something’s in the microwave. A recipe can be followed without firing up the printer.

The iPad’s form allows its functionality to become much more convenient. It makes computing a series of small, lightweight tasks integrated in with other day-to-day tasks, instead of computing acting as a big, linear, heavyweight activity that needs a block of time set aside for it.

That’s pretty impressive.

I don’t think it’s enough, though. I still don’t want one of my own. I understand that it’s great for casual perusal of web content, and I understand that it’s great at bringing the Internet into my home in a convenient and non-threatening way. The thing is, though, I already have a smartphone, and it does all of these things, too. Plus, it works when I’m not at home. And it’s already in my pocket. My smartphone is less comfortable to read, but it’s more comfortable to hold. Between that and my desktop, I think my computing needs are covered.

It’s hard to provide an overarching recommendation or dismissal, but here’s a try: if you already have a computer at home and you’re not sure you see the use of this alternate form factor, chances are you don’t need it. If, though, you’d love to replace your laptop with something of the tablet persuasion, and if you think you might be able to make some compromises (mostly related to the onscreen keyboard), then head to a local store and give it a test drive.

I personally believe that the iPad cannot replace a laptop, and that’s genuinely frustrating because it seems so close. At the same time, though, it’s overly dismissive to assume that because it doesn’t do what a laptop does, it’s not useful. I think it’s most fair to say that it’s working from a different set of tradeoffs than a laptop: the iPad is better than a laptop for reading, but worse for writing. It’s better for viewing, but worse for composition. The idea of the iPad and devices like it as “content consumption” vessels is more correct than not, but I think that conclusion relies mistakenly on the idea that we’ll continue only to interact with computers by typing. How about, “It’s just not very good for typing text into”? That seems more forward-thinking, because there are, and will continue to be, plenty of ways to interact with computers that don’t involve typing. And it makes for an easy sound-bite recommendation: check out the iPad, if you don’t do much typing.

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