The iPad at two months

I’ve had my iPad for just under two months now and thought it’s a good time to reflect on it.

I’ll admit to hesitating before buying one.  I’m not really a fan of Apple — they do good hardware but (in my opinion) only so-so user interface work, and I cannot abide the zealots who are legion who believe that every decision by the Cupertino company is sublime, inspired, and unassailably correct.  (The single button mouse?  For twenty years? Really?)  But my school is currently investigating providing an iPad to every student, and purchased 20 for faculty to use to get acclimated, and then offered a decent deal on purchasing them.  So I thought, What the heck?

My impressions are below the fold.

Is the iPad a game changer?  Unquestionably so.  I borrowed one while we administered the SAT and I was blown away.  I was walking around the big creaky gym floor proctoring the exam, and I could stop at any minute to consult my notes or the student facebook or what have you.  Likewise, when a few weeks later I borrowed one while attending the Rally to Restore Sanity, I found it astounding how present the Internet felt.  I really felt I had the entire ‘Net at my command at any time.

Now that I have my own personal device, that feeling has grown.  No more do I have to sit through interminable arguments over (say) who scored the most triples ever.  I can just pop open the iPad and check.  (By the way, it’s Sam Crawdord.  Who knew?)  I can also check email and compose replies, keep my bankbook, read news (lots and lots and lots of news), and do all the amazing Internet things that make up my life … and because the device is very light, reasonably fast, and remarkably long-lasting on the battery, I can feel comfortable bringing it anywhere and accessing it anytime.

I’ve also gotten into reading ebooks way more than I’d expected.  I like the ability to search and collate my notes, and of course, carrying a library around in one device is nice.  I prefer the iPad over the Kindle or Nook not because the reading experience is better — I have not read enough on either of the competitors to say — but because I don’t have to choose between them.  I can buy from iTunes or Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  (As an aside, I am still dismayed at the too-oft-unnoticed winnowing of our First Sale rights, and that has soured me on ebooks quite a bit.  Buying one now is a moral struggle for me, and I’ve definitely shied away from purchases in the hundreds of dollars.  Someday, I hope, ebooks will go the way of DRM music, which found it couldn’t compete with the portable and open MP3 standard.)

I am using the iPad more than I expected, in ways I couldn’t have predicted, and having more genuine fun doing so.

Having said that… The iPad is nonetheless subject to surprising constraints.  Some stem from immature technology; some from limitations of the medium; and some are outright design decisions.  The iPad is “reasonably” quick but it isn’t really blazing.  The WiFi is a bit spotty and certainly not a world record-breaker.  Despite what Apple fans swear vehemently, Apple software can crash and the apps (many of which are, admittedly, third-party) can be extremely flaky.  “Multitasking” isn’t really that — it’s more like individualized application hibernation — and no matter what Steve Jobs tells you, if you don’t periodically clear the task bar manually, you will run into trouble.

But my disappointment runs a little deeper than that.  More than the particular design choices, I dislike Apple’s implicit but overriding design philosophy.  The iPad is the long-heralded “appliance computer”, as opposed to the “general computer” we are all used to.  Yes, there are a zillion apps and you can do a zillion things.  But it’s still a surprisingly stilted ecosystem.  It took me a while to understand it, but this is the basic problem I have with the iPad:

The iPad is a device for consumption not one for creation.

It’s designed to deliver media to you and it does a beautiful job of it.  If you want to read books, or watch video (but not all video), or cruise the Web, the iPad is awesome.  It’s elegant and snappy and, of course, terminally hip.  But if you want to actual create content, it suddenly becomes awkward and ungainly.  Sure, you can make Keynote presentations (sort of) and you can write in Page (kind of) — if you’re willing to shell out another $30 for the iWorks suite.  You can upload video, though of course lacking a camera, you can’t shoot any video.  You can post to Facebook or Twitter but only with a virtual keyboard that isn’t really meant for extensive, expansive writing.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like my iPad and I think it was worth the $500 I plunked down — and even the additional money I’ve sunk into apps.  I’m just not as impressed by it as much of the digital press is.  It’s functional and in places sleek.  But to my eye it is very clearly a transitional technology.  It’s just barely possible that my next tablet will be an iPad.  But I’m pretty sure the one after that will be an open, vibrant competitor which probably doesn’t even exist today.

The Internet is meant to be free, not walled, and I think Apple’s garden will end up a quiet cul-de-sac, nice to visit but no place to live.

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