The Present and Future of the iPad

Months before I ever held an iPad in my hands, I predicted that the iPad would be an “inside the park home run.” Now that I’ve spent the past few days working with my new iPad, my assessment remains unchanged. If I revised anything, it would be to move the home run out of the park. The iPad is even better than I had anticipated.

To fully appreciate the iPad, check out iPad-optimized apps

To those who scoff that the iPad is “just a large iPod touch,” I say: You’re wrong. Completely wrong. Six ways from Sunday wrong. What makes the iPad special is not so much the increased size (although it is dramatic) but the increased capabilities that the extra size allows. When you’re running Pages or USA Today or ABC Player or RealRacing HD or any of the hundreds of other iPad-optimized apps (apps listed in iTunes as either “iPhone, iPod touch and iPad Apps” or “iPad Apps”), you realize that the iPad is much closer to a desktop computer than an iPod touch. The iPad offers split screens, popover displays, and menu bars with functional drop down menus. As a bonus, almost everything runs faster on the iPad than on the iPhone or iPod touch.

Check out WeatherBug Elite, an iPad app that takes full advantage of these new iPad features. You’ll feel as if you are at the helm of some futuristic weather forecasting command center rather than viewing a minimalist iPod touch app. 

Even familiar iPhone apps, such as Twitterific and Maps, have a significantly different more expansive feel in their iPad-optimized versions. Rather than being aware of the compromises needed to accommodate the small size of the iPhone, these iPad apps make you feel as if no compromises were needed or made. When using these iPad apps, you realize that, at least for some tasks, the iPad is not merely as good as the Mac but better. There is a natural feel to the touchscreen interface that makes you think: “Yes, this is the way computing was intended to work.” This is not to say there are no downsides to the iPad (see my previous column on iPad file sharing for just how “down” things can get). But when the iPad is firing on all cylinders, you have to be impressed.

The last time I recall having this feeling was back in 1984, with my first Macintosh. Speaking of the original Mac, it too had a 9 inch screen. Maybe there is some cosmic symmetry at work here.

Don’t dismiss iPhone apps on the iPad

Just because the iPad shines brightest when running iPad-optimized apps doesn’t mean you should forego older iPhone apps altogether. Yes, they will seem limited in comparison. And yes, they will look a bit pixelated in the 2X enlarged view. But many of them perform quite well on the iPad.

I am especially enjoying playing some of my favorite iPhone games at 2x size. For the first time, I can play The Deep in the full screen “fixed camera mode” without feeling like a I need a magnifying glass to see what’s going on. Even simple games like Peggle and Canabalt benefit from the iPad’s larger real estate.

The iPad and the decline of amateur creation?

In the early days of the Mac, whenever a new category of software emerged on the scene, a predictable pattern followed. First, there would be a burst of competing programs of varying degrees of sophistication. After a few years, only a few of these programs remained. There were one or two high-end programs, one or two entry-level programs, and perhaps a couple of stragglers in the middle. Anything else was either gone or had too little market share to mention.

That’s what happened with desktop publishing. Back in the 1980s, there was the arrival of PageMaker and a slew of competitors. Today, InDesign and Quark XPress dominate the high end. iWork’s Pages stands pretty much alone at the low end. A few minor players (such as iStudio Publisher) struggle to occupy the middle. Similarly, for WYSIWYG web design programs, the ball started rolling with PageMill, Claris Home Page and a diverse group of other programs. Today, there’s primarily Adobe’s DreamWeaver at the high end, Freeway in the middle and iLife’s iWeb holding down the entry level. The pattern repeats itself for music software: Apple now controls almost the entire market range — via GarageBand, Logic Express and Logic Pro. And so it goes.

A related aspect of this evolution is that, over time, the separation between the high vs. low end programs increased. The first version of PageMaker was not that much more advanced than the entry level programs at the time. Everyone who wanted to give desktop publishing a try, wanted to try PageMaker. Today, the difference between Pages vs. XPress is akin to the difference between taking an aspirin vs. performing neurosurgery. People who are not “professionals” don’t even glance at XPress.

Despite all of this, one fundamental remains: All of these programs run on a Mac. If you outgrow GarageBand, you can move up to Logic Express. Fed up with iMovie? Final Cut Pro awaits.

The iPad represents a major departure from this fundamental. Much of the content you consume on an iPad is of necessity created on a Mac (or even a PC). You can listen to music on an iPad. But if you want to create and record your own music (a few limited apps aside), you’ll need a Mac. You can view Web pages on an iPad. But if you want to design a Web site, you’ll need a Mac. You can launch apps on an iPad. But to create an app yourself, you’ll need a Mac.

The iPad does offer a few worthwhile creative apps, such as for drawing or editing photos. But no one would contend that even these apps come close to matching what you can do on a Mac.

Some predict that this gap will close over time. Over the next few years, as the iPad matures, the assumption is that the iPad will acquire those capabilities that now require a Mac. I added my support to this possible future in my previous column. But this is not the only potential future.

There is a reasonable alternative future, one where the iPad remains focused on content consumption, largely abandoning aspirations for content creation. In this future, the iPad and the Mac diverge in a way metaphorically similar to how Pages and XPress diverged. The iPad will be the computing device for the mainstream, providing only limited options for content creation, as evidenced by the iWork suite of software. The Mac will become the “advanced” device, the major content creator, primarily used by professionals.

To put it another way: While everyone wants to surf the Web, few people are motivated to design their own Web sites. That’s why many people will find even the current iPad to be all (or almost all) they need.

Some have argued that these trends, especially with the arrival of the iPad, portend an end of innovation. I disagree. But I do see where it may mark a decline in the frequency with which amateurs move up the innovation ladder. If the day ever comes when iPad owners no longer typically also own a Mac or PC, and if moving up the ladder requires shifting from an iPad to a Mac or PC, people are less likely make the climb.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is actually typical of what happens as almost any technology advances. There was a time when driving a car required knowing how to deal with at least routine trouble under the hood. Today, most drivers rarely lift a hood; many have probably never done so. Similarly, the iPhone and iPad so successfully hide their operating system (a fact I have complained about in other contexts) that many users remain unaware that a Mac OS X-based system exists “under the hood.”

Bottom line: There are some dangers lurking in the iPad’s future (as I’ve expressed here). Regardless, I believe the iPad represents the next step in the continuing evolution of the personal computer. It’s a device that works so simply and intuitively that you no longer think of it as a computer. It’s just an iPad. And that’s good.