The iPad: An Inside-the-Park Home Run

The iPad (as we now know it is called) is tantamount to Apple hitting an inside-the-park home run. Even with all of the rumors swirling about these past months, the device ultimately managed to live up to the hype — and even exceed it in a few places. I am certain Apple has a success on their hands. They will sell a ton of iPads (you heard it here first!). That’s what makes it a home run. But while Apple lit up the scoreboard with the iPad (which is what counts most), they didn’t manage the ultimate spectacle of hitting the ball beyond the upper decks. Here’s why:

Why it’s a home run

Sorting through all of the iPad’s features and specs, here are the ones that most sold me on the device:

• Price. This was the biggest surprise of the day. The cost of an iPad starts at $499. The Kindle DX sells for $489. For only $10 more, you can get an iPad — which does…about a zillion more things than the Kindle. Even given that the Kindle’s E-Ink technology may be superior for reading and battery life, it’s time for Amazon to rethink their Kindle strategy. The iPad is going to be serious competition. Deadly serious.

I also believe it was smart for Apple to make 3G an option (it cost $130 extra). Many people survive quite nicely with a MacBook that has no 3G option. They can do so just as well with the iPad. And for those willing to pay for the privilege of 3G (including its additional monthly fee), they can. Choice is good.

• iWork and the Keyboard. In a previous column, I expressed my hope that the iPad might replace my MacBook. In order to do so, it would need to have at least two capabilities not presently available in the iPhone. First, it needed to be able to run applications such as the iWork suite, so I could use it to write articles or create Keynote presentations. Second, it needed an external keyboard, so I could type more efficiently that I can with a virtual keyboard. Apple delivered on both counts (exactly along the lines I described in my article). Kudos. [Update: To be fair, I believed that the iPad would not have the muscle to be a true Keynote document creator; I was happily wrong.]

I still have concerns about editing (I don’t want to have to “shake to Undo”). But I assume this will be worked out.

• External connections. I was glad to see that Apple is offering a Camera Connection Kit. With this, you can load photos from a camera directly to the iPad, yet another key feature makes it possible to replace a MacBook with an iPad. Again, I predicted that this feature was coming — at it did.

Similarly, although details are still a bit vague, Apple promises that the iPad will work with “external projectors” — meaning I can use it to deliver presentations at conferences and meetings. 

• iBooks. The new iBooks app and the iBookstore turn the iPad into a full-fledged eBook reader. Combined with updated newspaper and magazine apps, redesigned to take advantage of the special features of the iPad interface (such as embedded video and jumping to story continuations), it offers almost everything I had hoped to see.

I was a bit surprised that magazines and newspapers were not included in the iBookstore, where they might charge for a subscription. Many had predicted something like this — and that it would mark the beginning of a rejuvenation for print publications. But it was not to be. 

• Everything else. As for the rest, the iPad showed off the typical Apple polish. It looks sleek, runs fast, and works even better than the iPhone as a game machine, iPod, Web browser and email client. My overall positive impression could dim a bit after I finally get an iPad in my hands and discover limitations not apparent from the demos; but I doubt it.

Why it didn’t make it out of the ballpark

Despite all of this, there are a few missing pieces that prevent me from having unqualified enthusiasm for the iPad. In some cases, the pieces may yet be found (as there are details yet to be revealed). But the outlook is not encouraging. 

One general comment: Steve Jobs described the iPad as a new product category, in between the iPhone and the MacBook. True enough. But it is also true that, if you already own a MacBook and an iPhone, there is not a compelling reason to get an iPad — unless you intend it to replace one of these other two devices. That is, I don’t see going on a trip with all three in my backpack. For me, as I’ve already indicated, I view the iPad as a potential replacement for a MacBook that serves as a secondary computer. And here is where it runs into trouble. 

• File transfer limitations. It appears that the major (and in some cases the only) way to directly transfer data to and from an iPad will be — just as with an iPhone — via syncing to your Mac or PC. Sure, you can use email to send an attachment (if you have an Internet connection), but if you simply want to get a Pages document from your iPad to a friend’s iPad (or vice versa), there should be a simple direct way to do so. With two MacBooks, you can do the transfer over Wi-Fi, using file sharing to mount one computer as an external drive on the other Mac. Or you ca use a USB flash drive as an intermediary. Neither of these options appear to be available for the iPad.

Or what about if I am traveling with an iPad and iPhone and I want to transfer an assortment of documents from one device to the other? How do I do this — without any MacBook for syncing? I’m not sure this is even possible. Perhaps Apple expects people to use MobileMe as a cloud-based solution. We’ll see.

[Note: I have begun to look over what’s new in iPhone OS 3.2 SDK. It offers some positive signs. In particular, applications will be able to “share” documents they create using a new file-sharing support feature. All documents to be shared are placed in a Shared Directory, which will mount on the desktop when the device is connected to a computer. This works independently of iTunes syncing. While this doesn’t address all the file transfer and viewing issues, it’s a start.]

• File viewing limitations. There appears to be no direct way to see the full contents of the iPad’s hard drive. Again, the same is true for the iPhone. If I want to view a list of all of my Pages documents, I expect I will be able to do so from within the Pages app. But what if I more generally want to see all my documents? Or what if I want to create a folder that contains a custom set of my documents, such as a collection of files of different types, all related to an article I am working on. There seems no way to do this with the iPad (although the Shared folder may be a partial solution). Indeed, there still seems no folder hierarchy of any kind supported in the iPad’s Home screens.

Speaking of file viewing, I’m still waiting to see the extent to which the iPad will work with projection systems. Will it just add Keynote presentations to the small list of what is permitted with the current iPhone OS? Or will it truly allow mirroring of the iPad’s display, as you can do with any Mac? I suspect, unfortunately, the former is the case.

Bluetooth limitations. Despite my joy at seeing a Dock-connected keyboard for the iPad, I’d like to see more keyboard options — such as a Bluetooth wireless keyboard, maybe even one that can be folded so as to make it more portable. The iPad does support Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, so this seems possible. But will Apple truly allow third-parties to play ball here? I’m not sure. [Update: As pointed out in reader comments below, Apple’s Web site states that the iPad will work with the Apple Wireless Keyboard. Whether or not this implies support for third-party keyboards remains uncertain, at least to me.]

• Printing? Will you be able to directly connect your iPad to a printer? As I detailed in this article, your options for doing this from an iPhone are very limited. I see no sign that the iPad will be different. But the demand for printing from an iPad will be greater than with the iPhone. For example, given that the iPad can run Pages, the time will surely come when you will want to print out documents you’ve created — without needing to sync to your Mac to do so. 

• Multitasking? What if I am working in Pages and what to add some Web URLs? Will I need to quit Pages, launch Safari, copy a URL, quit Safari, relaunch Pages, and paste the URL? And do this again for each additional URL I want? It sure looks like it. For the iPad to truly be an effective iWork environment, the iPad needs to allow multiple apps to be open at the same time. This may still be coming in iPhone OS 4.0 (not yet announced and possibly included when the iPad finally ships). But as of now, there is no mention of this feature.

• No camera. This first generation iPad has no camera (which means no videoconferencing). This doesn’t concern me too much, as I am certain it will be added to a future version. But it’s worth noting that it’s missing for now.

• The big picture. Almost all of the above limitations are really different aspects of the same thing: the closed nature of the iPhone OS. When I think about replacing my MacBook with an iPad, this fact leaves me more than a bit nervous. Do I really want to give up my MacBook for a device that allows me to add applications only via Apple’s App Store? Do I really want a MacBook alternative that offers no way to directly access, copy and move my documents? Ultimately, do I really want a replacement device that Apple appears to have more control over than I do?

Maybe. It is a pretty impressive device after all. And that’s why I plan to buy one. But I still hope Apple will begin to open up the iPad and iPhone OS in the months ahead. That’s when I will truly be able to yell “it’s outta here.”