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Why I am underwhelmed by the iPad

January 30, 2010

Steve Jobs announced the much-anticipated Apple tablet a couple of days ago. Despite the epic amounts of hype (or perhaps because of the unrealistic expectations created by this hype), there has been quite a lot of disappointment about the device.

I happen to be one of those people.

Before I go into why I was underwhelmed by the announcement, let me talk about what did impress me:

  1. The engineering. Apple has now gotten back into the silicon design business, and custom designed the ARM chip that powers this thing. And from the reviews I’ve read from the folks that have played with the iPad, it’s a rocket ship. Very fast.
  2. The price. That they managed to fit that very large screen and this new silicon, along with 8-10 hours worth of battery, into a case that slim, all for $500, is very impressive. I can’t wait to see iSupply or one of the other sites do a teardown of one of these to see if Apple is eating it on the hardware costs to spread adoption.

However, these two things are technical in nature, and if there is one thing that Apple’s success has taught us, it’s that technical achievement alone won’t get you the widespread adoption or astronomical profit margins that Apple enjoys.

There have been many sites detailing what went wrong with the iPad. Here is a particularly good one. However, most of these focus on features that are missing. I don’t think that the primary problem with the iPad is features. Sure, it would have been nice to see a webcam, or a fantastically tiny bezel, or Flash support, or any of 100 other things that one could ask for. While I do feel that multitasking is truly required on a device like this, one must keep in mind that this is the first revision of this device, and all of these are things that could be easily updated.

No, in my book, the biggest problem with the iPad is this: what does one use it for that isn’t better done on another device? If I want something mobile, the iPhone or another app-phone is much smaller and is something that you would already be carrying around with you in the first place. If I want to surf the web, or look at pictures, or write emails, a laptop (or desktop) is far more capable, and can do much more, much faster, than the iPad can. So where does the iPad fit? There is nothing that I can see one using it for that isn’t better served by another existing device. It’s missing it’s killer application, like the spreadsheet was for PCs or the mobile app-store was for the iPhone.

Furthermore, while the iPhone replaced several devices that people had to carry around and made folks’ lives easier, this device doesn’t replace anything. You’d still have to carry your iPhone, or Blackberry, or other phone around to do voice, and these devices can already do light emailing, calendaring, and web browsing. And you’d still have to carry around your laptop if you needed to do any serious email, spreadsheet, word processing, or other heavy lifting. The iPad doesn’t replace, or even enhance, any of these devices. It’s an extra thing to stuff in your bag or leave lying on the coffee table. It doesn’t make my life easier, it makes it more complicated, a decidedly un-Apple idea.

Now, I will say that perhaps I just need to use one. I’ll have to reserve my final judgement for now until I can truly play with one and see what I think. One definitely must keep in mind that this is the first revision, and that future revisions could be much, much improved, and truly prove their value proposition.

But until this happens, until I’ve played with one or figured out what this truly can be used for, I’m going to stick with this: I don’t see this device changing how very many people use computers. I don’t see how it adds any value to the computing experience.

One more note on the new processor that Apple designed: this is significant because Apple got out of the chip design business a couple of years ago when they moved to an Intel architecture. Apple now controls the design for what appears to be one of the faster “mobile” ARM chips out there. As for why Apple felt the need to design new silicon rather than adapting an existing design (such as the Snapdragon chip that powers the Motorola Droid) I don’t know, as it isn’t cheap to design these things–but if they felt the need to invest that time and money into the process, they must have felt that there was a lot of headroom to grow with in the ARM architecture, and felt that they could be the ones to figure it out. From first appearances, they have. This is some pretty significant intellectual property for Apple, and if they play it smart, this could be the true benefit for Apple from this device.

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