The iPad’s Coming Killer Feature?

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

A popular topic of debate these days, among Apple users, is: “If you had to choose between an iPad and a MacBook (especially a MacBook Air), which would you choose?” Put another way: “Can the iPad be a viable alternative to a MacBook?” I’ve offered some answers to these questions in previous columns (see “Me and My iPad on Vacation” and “Should You Get a MacBook Air?”). The simplest answer, as is often the case, is “It depends.” The more you expect to do serious work (as in heavy text-processing and image editing), the more you’ll want a MacBook. Otherwise, the iPad not only competes well but may be the better option.

The tablet vs. Mac/PC debate is no longer confined to the iPad. Within a few months, the iPad’s dominance will be challenged by Android tablets, HP’s TouchPad and RIM’s Playbook. Many in the tech press have already anointed 2011 as the “year of the tablet.” Predictions are that tablets will emerge as big winners in the long-term, gradually replacing Macs and PCs as the computing device of choice for many, if not most, consumers.

At least for the iPad, there remains one big obstacle in the way of this tablet transition (okay, there’s more than one, but only one that I intend to discuss today). The problem is this: The iPad cannot function as a stand-alone device. It can’t be your only computer. For one thing, you are required to connect an iPad to a Mac (or PC) in order to back it up and sync it. The iPad is also limited by an almost complete absence of any way to connect to external storage devices.

Apple does offer the iPad Camera Connection Kit, with adapters that provide an SD card slot and a USB port. However, they are intended to work only for transferring photos and movies from a digital camera. Attempts to work around this restriction have been partly successful (such as Sahno’s HyperDrive), but such products will never be widely adopted.

Before the iPad can serve as a complete alternative to a Mac or PC, Apple will need to solve this “independence” dilemma. For this to happen, Apple will have to do at least one of two things (probably both):

Add external storage support to the iOS

The easiest path for Apple to follow would be to expand the functionality of the Camera Connection Kit. Modify the iOS so that any app can import data from and export data to SD cards. Similarly, an upgraded iOS could support data transfers between the iPad and USB flash (key) drives via the Connection Kit’s USB port. A future iPad might offer a built-in SD card slot and/or USB port. The small size of SD cards and flash drives (as opposed to optical drives and USB hard drives) would fit well with the ultra-portable nature of the iPad.

The big unanswered question here is whether or not Apple is willing to open up the iOS enough to support these options. Currently, iOS file-sharing options are very limited. Apple’s support is primarily limited to an awkward iTunes-based method and requires that documents be “sandboxed” inside the app that opens it. Apps such as Dropbox work around these limits to some extent, but it’s still far from an ideal solution. Open access to external storage will inevitably require some loosening of these restrictions. I am not sure Apple is ready to go down this route just yet. But I believe they will eventually arrive there.

Sync to the cloud

The second (and more significant) step is to free the iPad from its iTunes syncing requirement. Such a shift would allow the iPad to function as a true stand-alone computer. 

I can imagine Apple providing a way to backup an iPad to an external flash drive, but I can’t see syncing managed this way. For syncing, you want something more than a passive drive. In my view, the only practical solution here is syncing via the cloud.  

Specifically, Apple could enable users to store their entire iTunes libraries on MobileMe. You could then manage syncing and backing up via a MobileMe iPad app that would function similarly to how iTunes works now. Perhaps this is the as-yet-undisclosed role for Apple’s North Carolina server farm.

For those who have a Mac or PC, the iTunes-USB syncing option will remain. All three locations (iPad, MobileMe and iTunes) would remain synced to each other, similar to how things currenty work with MobileMe-supported data.

MobileMe syncing is not a perfect solution. It would require an Internet connection and would be considerably slower than USB. Having all your data stored on an Apple server also raises privacy and security concerns. The big upside is that it enables the iPad as an stand-alone device without requiring any local peripheral hardware.

Bottom line

With these two options in place (or, in a pinch, just MobileMe syncing), an iPad could be the only computer you need. There will still be many people who will want a Mac instead of (or in addition to) an iPad. But for a significant (and growing) segment of the computing market, “iPad only” would be a viable alternative. Assuming Apple implements this in a more elegant and easier-to-use way than its competitors (as is often the case), this would be a key feature that separates the iPad from the rest of the pack. When this happens, expect sales of iPads to skyrocket beyond their already impressive levels. The “year of the tablet” will have truly arrived.

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Comments

John Martellaro

I agree 100% Ted. Perhaps competition from other tablets and/or just plain good sense from Apple will get us there in 2011.

cb50dc

Perhaps competition from other tablets and/or just plain good sense from Apple will get us there in 2011.

Seems like I read something on this earlier today, John. Where was it? Where was it?

Oh, yeah ? THIS place  wink

FlipFriddle

External storage should be over WiFi; cables and dongles just muck things up. For me the Killer Feature is iLife connectivity and more connectivity to other computers and storage. The iPad seems to me to be lie a mobile monitor that you can manipulate objects on. With a WiFi connection, I should be able to browse my iPhoto shoot that I just uploaded to my networked iMac or macMini through the iPad, and then do the editing and touch up on the iPad, with the desktop machines CPU doing all of the heavy lifting. If i have a media server it makes sense that you could browse through your stuff on the iPad and then stream a movie you have to watch it. The idea of storing anything significant on the iPad seems old-fashioned; just stream it all from your LAN.
Not being able to browse my iPhoto library from an iPad has seemed like such a bizarre omission from such a great product. 

oo - guess I was ranting there.

MCooper

On my last trip, I was unable to delete slideshows I had synced from my MacBook before I left. I needed the space but could not free it up. I was unable to view movies I took on my point-and-shoot Canon camera or create slideshows. It was all the pictures or nothing.
I needed it to be a standalone as I was travelling for 6 weeks and no access to my home computer.
I found no way to determine how much free space is available, only when tethered.
I see from my notes then that I could not delete synced music.

emozion

Ted, I like your thinking?and I would like to expand upon it (with your permission).

One of the great strenghts of the iPhone and iPad is the ability, nay, the automated wonder of backing up the whole device to your PC/Mac. I see your point, that this dependence may be perceived as a drawback, but it certainly is very useful and reassuring.

To completely cut the iPad’s umbilical cord to its PC/Mac mother, it needs a father in the heavens. ALL of the iPad could be backed up to the cloud, including iOS, apps, music, movies and personal documents, so that a device could be completely restored from such a backup. Then we are looking at iTunes in the sky, and the iPad users are free to roam the earth.

mhikl

Will the MBA become the best of both worlds, maybe even morph into the iPad Air. I, amongst many, are too tied to the keyboard for the iPad to replace a laptop, at least when knees are involved. Have friends and relatives who love their iPads and I get enough play time to know, there is better yet to come.

Apple’s cloud sounds the way to go. When will the big day come? What new tricks will jump from the wizard’s hat that no one on this green earth has yet imagined. When we see them, what an Apple aha moment that will be.

Ted, I suspect Apple has this all thought out. JM calls Apple’s charge for music and books greedy. (You hear the criticism often enough, it almost makes sense.) But I think Steve and crew have played every scenario that has, that will and, more importantly, the ones that won’t appear on these sites, many times over, including the thirty percent act. Just because Steve’s lips are moving, doesn’t always mean he means what they say. Time and space are very pliable in Jobs’ universe. The iPad won’t be Siamesed forever.

graxspoo

I think backing up to the cloud might be OK, but another good option would be to back up to a local Time Capsule. WiFi is faster than most internet connections, especially for uploads, plus you don’t have to pay for MobileMe, and your data stays in your own hands.

Another issue, that almost goes without saying, is needing to allow iPhones/iPods/iPads to either sync to each other, or sync to the common back-up repository.

Ian

I have a mac mini server which hosts user profiles. I want all my devices to sync with the appropriate user profile on that with time machine operating on the server making sure all user profiles are backed up. I don’t really need a cloud but if I did I’d want it to sync with my mac mini server not directly with my iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch. This provides me with the option to use the cloud or not.

chicochaz

Interesting thoughts, however, the more “comprehensive” the iPad becomes, the closer it’s going to get to being a laptop like the MBA and that just puts it in competitive territory with the MBA. That then begs the question of, “Why is Apple doing this?” Trying to push it into laptop functionality too much is self-defeating, in my view.

graxspoo

@chicochaz You are probably right that cannibalizing the Mac market becomes more of an issue the more capable the iPad becomes, but many people will not get an iPad if it is an “additional device.” I already own a MacBook and an iPhone. I don’t want spend money on another thing to keep charged up and worry about breaking. 
Apple may be pushed in this direction by their competitors though. This is actually something I very much like about webOS: the internet is the mother-ship, not your Mac. If Andriod or webOS tablets take hold, Apple may have little choice but to follow suit.

Ted Landau

I think backing up to the cloud might be OK, but another good option would be to back up to a local Time Capsule.

Wireless syncing to a device such as a Time Capsule, as opposed to a USB flash drive, is a good possibility for backing up. However, I still don’t see it for syncing. The thing with syncing (as it is now) is that settings can be modified from the Mac. Some changes, such as modifying your contacts or music Library or app updating, can be done even when the iPad is not connected. None of this could be done by a Time Capsule alone. So, I still see the cloud as getting involved here ? where MobileMe would have similar “power” to iTunes on a Mac.

The other advantage of cloud syncing is that it requires no additional hardware and can be done anywhere you have an Internet connection.

Ted Landau

Trying to push it into laptop functionality too much is self-defeating, in my view.

This “cannabilizing” argument only applies if the net result is a loss for Apple. It’s all about money. For example, I am certain that Apple would terminate its entire line of MacBooks tomorrow, in favor of iPads ? if it determined that their annual revenue would double (and remain doubled) as a result.

Apple dumped Xserve because it wasn’t making enough money to bother maintaining. Apple will treat laptops with same lack of sentimentality.

In any case, it needn’t be as extreme as termination. MacBook sales could simply decline toward numbers closer to where the iMac is today. Perhaps the MacBook Air would morph into some sort of iPad-MacBook hybrid.

True, the retail price (and margin) of laptops is higher than for iPads. That could slow down any such transition. But I believe it’s coming.

graxspoo

The model would have to be different, but I could imagine a way that that the Time Capsule repository would become a shared resource pool rather than a simple back-up, and the configuration for the sync would be on the target device rather than on the host (since there would be no host). The current sync strategy was developed when the targets were dumb (iPods) and the host was smart (Macs). The new model just reverses this. The targets are smart (iOS devices) and the host is dumb (NAS).

Lancashire-Witch

Ted, this sounds like a major upgrade to MobileMe?  Maybe Apple should buy Dropbox first.

In any event, I have enough trouble with MobileMe now.  It can be very confusing at times. And it’s not an insignificant expense.

Somehow I don’t feel comfortable with the thought of being totally reliant on the cloud for all my computing needs.

News out of Apple about North Carolina may tell us a lot about the future direction.

graxspoo

Yes, I also don’t like the idea of my computer being dependent on Apple’s internet services. I want the freedom to pick and choose my services, and I don’t like Apple trying to milk more money out of me, after I’ve already paid them for the hardware, especially for things that should be free, like email and contact/calendar sync. I think forcing people into a yearly subscription would be a major sales sticking point.

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