The iPad’s Coming Killer Feature?

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.