Replacing the Notebook, and Other Thoughts

January 27th, 2010

The day finally came, and the tablet — err, the iPad — is public. Expectations are high; Apple had to create a device that has no easy niche to fill, and make it so compelling that we’d love it anyway.

Others have, and many more will, post their thoughts, so I’ll try to keep this as non-comprehensive as I can. I’d like to talk only about a few things of particular interest to me.

The Concept

More important than the hardware design, or even the software, is what this device is intended to do, and how it fits together with Apple’s other devices.

Last August, I wrote about where I thought the tablet would be positioned — that is, how Apple would intend it to be used. I wrote,

That’s where the tablet fits. The iPhone is the device you use to browse the web and check Twitter while running errands or at a friend’s house; the Mac is the device you use to get real work done; and the tablet is the device you use to read a book, edit a document, or watch a movie while in bed, on a plane, or in a coffee shop.

You won’t use it because it can do things the iPhone, or a notebook, can’t. You’ll use it because it’s much better at doing them.

So I’ll take a second to bask in the glory of getting something right. That’s how Jobs set up the iPad: you’ll use it to do all of these things because it is a lot better at doing them than the other options. But what I missed, and John Gruber nailed, is that Apple means for the iPad to replace a MacBook for most users.

I cannot possibly overstate how important this is. Apple today showed us what they think is the future of computing: handheld, all-screen, touch.

Many people were disappointed with the device, considering it little more than a big iPod touch. But this simply isn’t just a large-screen iPod touch. Watch the the demonstration, and you can see just how powerful it is. You can browse the web in its entirety (except for Flash, notably), play music and video beautifully, read books in a great application, and even create and edit documents, presentations and spreadsheets in a surprisingly-powerful iWork suite. And that doesn’t even count what third-party developers will create for it. All on a device not much larger than a portfolio.

Those who are unhappy with it would point out you can’t do “real” work on it. You can’t edit video. You can’t design web sites. You can’t develop applications. My response is: that only matters to a small portion of computer users, and for them, Apple is still making MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Pros.

Of course you can’t do those things. But most users do just a few things: they create documents, listen to music and watch video, and browse the web. That’s true for college students on up to seniors. The iPad does all of those things really, really well.

Think about just how powerful an iPad is for these users. It’s magnitudes easier to learn and use — you just touch it, and as a result there’s no extraneous UI widgets and keyboard shortcuts to learn. Because it weighs only one and a half pounds, and is really thin, you can carry it anywhere you can bring a book.

I shake my head when I think about that. You can bring it anywhere, but the iPad can turn into the best mobile web browser on the planet, the best media player, a fantastic book reader, and can create and edit documents, presentations and spreadsheets. Anywhere. All in something the size of a portfolio.

Now imagine what it will be when developers create applications just for the device. For artists, it’s a canvas they can use anywhere, and share on the web instantly; for people who enjoy reading books and publications, they can read them all in wonderful clarity and color all on one device, anywhere; for architects, they can make building design changes on site, or sketch a new building whenever a new idea strikes them; and…

Are you getting it?

I’ve dreamed about the mythical tablet device of the future, the device that we carry around with us and can do almost everything with. I’m sure most of you have, too. This is the first version of that very device.

In case you couldn’t tell, I am ecstatic for Apple’s vision. There isn’t another company today that could present such a well-conceived vision, something that is so difficult to achieve, and then deliver something incredibly close to it.

I do, however, have some thoughts and issues that I’d like to discuss. These do not detract from what Apple has done. They are mostly nitpicks in light of the overall concept, but nonetheless there are problems.

Text Entry

The iPad, of course, uses an on-screen software keyboard that is quite similar to the iPhone’s. This creates the same advantage: special keyboard layouts for special circumstances. One look at Number’s number and date keyboards and you’ll be sold on that.

The iPad’s size, though, makes it more difficult to type. When it is horizontal, the keyboard is nearly full-size. But you must either rest it on a table or your lap to type on it with two hands, and so this doesn’t strike me as a particularly great way to type. Jobs’s comment that it’s a “dream” to type on don’t seem very believable.

Apple has acknowledged this, and provided three other ways to type on it: with a wireless keyboard, a keyboard dock, and with their leather case. The leather case flips back so the iPad can sit on a table at a shallow angle, much like the keyboards themselves do. This most interests me, because if it works decently, you’ll be able to use the iPad for typing moderate amounts of text almost anywhere, and the leather case is something most people are likely to buy anyway.

The keyboard is a concern because it is the upper-bound of how much real computing functionality the iPad can cover. If it is only usable for small text entry — searching Google, quick emails — then it is mostly an entertainment device with strong drawing capabilities when mobile, while if it has moderately-good typing abilities, it’s in an entirely new category.

It’s clear Apple is nervous about this. Creating a keyboard dock alone shows Apple knows this is a problem, as it’s a very un-Apple thing to do. When Jobs showed it, he did so awkwardly; he said, “and when you need to type War and Peace, you can use this.” His tone seemed to waver. I think this is what worries them the most.

My other concern here is it appears to have no handwriting recognition at all. I carry a Moleskine around with me most everywhere I go, because I get inspiration at unpredictable times and places. I would love to use the iPad for this purpose (if not replace my Moleskine with it completely), but I can’t brainstorm by typing. Writing things out both encourages my creativity and forces me to whittle the ideas down. I won’t give that up for the convenience of having them all on one device.


It’s ridiculous that we have this super-fast, super-efficient device, but we still can’t listen to Pandora while browsing the web in Safari. It’s so ridiculous that I suspect Apple is holding this back for a future version. I bet mobile OS 4.0 (or whatever Apple is calling it now) will have multi-tasking built-in for iPhone, iPod touch and the iPad.


The “iBook” application (small note to Apple: you’re beginning to mock yourself with these names. Can we drop the i-prefix already?) looks quite good. The text looks fantastic, and I can imagine myself lying in bed reading it, and just as immersed as with a real book. The bookshelf looks great, too, but the resemblance to Delicious Library is unseemly. While the bookshelf is the only metaphor they really could have used, and Delicious Library’s look has been ripped off more than a few times already, it looks just like it. Couldn’t Apple have given Wil Shipley some kind of recognition, whether it be monetary or verbal? He is a fantastic developer, and he deserves it.

I have a few other questions about the application.

The books are in the ePub format, but it isn’t clear if they’re wrapped in DRM. So my first question is: can we share books? And if we can, will other devices that support the format be able to read them? This is a make-or-break question. I can’t completely switch to ebooks unless I can share them with others.

Can I read ePub-format books not from the Apple book store in the iBook application? If not, it isn’t much of an issue; a third-party reader will solve this, but it would be ideal to have all of my books in one application.

Can I highlight text, bookmark pages and take notes? This is another make-or-break. The main reason I haven’t bought a Kindle yet is that it isn’t as easy (nor as elegant) to highlight text and make notes on the Kindle as it is in a book. I want to be able to reference these excerpts and notes later on, and ideally have them automatically sync to other applications (and my Mac).

Will independent writers be able to publish their work?

Those are my main concerns with the iBook application.


Here’s my only concern: those icons are hideous.

The iWork demonstration was incredible. Apple didn’t just create an iWork lite for the iPad — they created surprisingly-full featured applications, and that work just with touch. You can inset text, wrap it to fit objects, add builds to presentations, formulas to spreadsheets…

They created some new forms of interaction that I found particularly interesting; just in the demonstration, I saw at least three. In Keynote, if you want to re-order multiple slides, you drag one out of the list, and then tap the others you want to move. They then fall into a stack, so you can move them wherever you want.

If you want to images sized exactly the same, you begin re-sizing one, then tap the one who’s size you want it to be.

To move through a document in Pages, you scroll along the right side, it scrolls page by page, and a loupe pops up showing you which page you are on.

Smart. There’s all kinds of interesting things in these applications, but those were the three that caught me eye.

Even more important, though, is that iWork is introducing us to “real” applications that don’t use files or a file system. You don’t look through a Finder application to open a Pages document on the iPad; rather, you open Pages, and it shows you all of your documents. The documents live in the application. There are no “files,” just documents, presentations, and spreadsheets.

Apple’s vision for the future of computing is something even more simple than what they created in OS X.

These are my immediate thoughts on the iPad. I do have other minor complaints, like the “iPod” application’s (it looks like iTunes) ugly top bar, but I expect those to be addressed between now and the release.

Apple should be commended for their audacity to create a new way of computing. Only Apple could, or is willing to, create such a daring concept. Most other companies wouldn’t even consider it, because it’s so different — it’s so different, they can’t guarantee it will sell enough for them to break-even.

But Apple has never been about making what will merely sell. They’ve always been about creating something that is as great as they possibly can, something that will capture the minds of people who look at it — both the ones that love and hate it. They’ve always been about, as Wayne Gretsky said, skating to where the puck will be, not where it is.