Apple's First-Generation iPad: Not Great, But Not Bad
As I mentioned the other day, I specifically went online while on vacation to check out what Apple announced three Wednesdays ago. In reviewing what I predicted more than a month back about what the company’s tablet would likely encompass:
- An internally developed ARM CPU, running the iPhone-based variant of OS X
- Modestly-sized and flash memory-derived solid-state storage
- 802.11n and Bluetooth wireless connectivity, with an option for cellular data services, and
- A netbook-sized and LED-backlit LCD screen
I’m compelled to conclude, normal humility aside, that I pretty much nailed the platform
Basically what we have here is a large-screen iPod touch. Some of the first-generation system’s implementation details are disappointing, albeit not surprising (and some, like the amount of built-in RAM, are at the moment completely missing):
- Many already-published reviews complain about the platform’s lack of multitasking support. Strictly speaking, this isn’t true; the apps built into the iPhone and iPod touch multitask just fine. I can send and receive email in the background, or download new and updated programs from the App Store, while doing other things in the foreground, for example. But presumably to minimize the potential for adverse performance and battery life impacts, Apple doesn’t extend similar robustness to downloadable applications (including, curiously, its own…which will affect, for example, the iBooks electronic publishing viewer program). This limitation will be more of an issue with a large-screen device (the iPad) positioned as a general-purpose computing and communications platform, versus the more narrowly focused iPhone (cellphone) and iPod touch (PDA).
- Speaking of operating systems and applications, some analysts have grumbled about the perceived ‘limitation’ of only being able to obtain software (and updates for it) from the Apple-controlled App Store. I’m more sanguine about the situation. Granted, some folks coming from a full-featured Linux, OS X or Windows background might find an iPhone-derived tablet computer to be unacceptably function-constrained. But admit it: manually installing and updating software is also a royal pain, as is recovering from inadvertent virus infections. An Apple-managed ecosystem will at least theoretically reduce, if not eliminate, such issues. And given how function-bloated office productivity suites have become, a svelte iPad-tuned iWork suite may be just the ticket for the bulk of the target customer base. Arguably, the iPad represents the direction that Apple hopes all computing platforms will sooner or later evolve towards.
- Expansion limitations, such as the lack of built-in SD card, USB and analog/digital video output ports, are disappointing but reminiscent of the shortcomings in the first-generation iPhone (which subsequent hardware generations addressed). They reflect Apple’s general strategy of positioning the device as a tethered peripheral both to other networked Macs and to ‘cloud’ services such as MobileMe and the App Store, versus allowing the iPad to be a full-featured standalone computer. They also reflect Apple’s longstanding desire to maximize platform profit margin; note that many of the built-in limitations can be surmounted via the purchase of lucrative-to-Apple accessories.
- More surprising to me is the lack of a built-in camera. Admittedly, video chat and video phone functions have to date been underwhelming in consumer embrace, no matter that almost all netbook and notebook computers now come with cameras built into the display bezels. But Apple’s tablet had the potential to significantly accelerate video communications adoption, as well as to enable other interesting functions such as facial recognition-based automatic user account switching.
- The choice of an XGA-resolution display with 4:3 aspect ratio reflects pragmatic product architecture focus on cost versus a tiered prioritization of potential product capabilities. Granted, a widescreen LCD might result in a somewhat superior video playback experience, but the system would be bigger, bulkier, more power-hungry and more expensive as a result. Especially if Apple’s assuming that most of the content its customers are accessing is standard-definition in nature, letterboxed playback of widescreen material won’t be a showstopper. And by now, the company’s got plenty of statistical data on what sort of video content its customers are purchasing and renting. Need I point out Apple’s longstanding skepticism regarding Blu-ray, exemplified by a lingering lack of format support even within its high-end content creation systems?
- A 4:3 aspect ratio display is also non-ideal for spreadsheets, but it’s acceptable for gaming, web browsing, word processing and presentations. And it’s optimal for viewing pictures, album art and other music content, and eBooks. To wit, much has been made of the iPad’s potential for killing off Amazon’s Kindle and its similarly fixed-function competitors. For monochrome material such as books and most newspapers, a LCD is arguably a sub-par alternative to an E Ink-derived approach. The Kindle is much lower-priced and also includes gratis cellular data connectivity, which costs extra on the iPad (both in terms of initial hardware expense and incremental per-month service fees). But a color screen gains prominence with magazines, along with other content that’s been reformatted to take advantage of the platform’s strengths. And in a general sense, I can’t ignore the Darwinist tendency for all-in-one systems to slowly-but-surely obsolete standalone designs; look, for example, at what the cellphone is doing both to the PDA and the portable audio player. Amazon’s clearly hedging its bets, given that it’s developed a Kindle application for the iPhone and iPod touch. By the way, don’t be inappropriately optimistic about Apple’s embrace of the industry-standard ePub eBook format; the content will still be wrapped in Apple-proprietary DRM.
- Speaking of power hunger, a lot of folks have focused on the claimed 10 hours of battery life during normal operation. As anyone who’s used a battery-powered system already knows, the words ‘your mileage may vary’ should automatically be appended to any such claim; it’s also constrained by the fact that battery life degrades with age (and further complicated by the fact that the iPad’s embedded battery is not user-replaceable). More compelling, to me, is the claimed 1 month of standby life. This capability enables a user to leave the tablet near-perpetually near the couch for speedy access to IMDB or Wikipedia any time a movie’s on the TV; re-tethering to a power supply needs only occur every few weeks.
- And finally, speaking of cost and price, what about the iPad’s pricetag? $499 for the entry-level 16 GByte variant is around half the price that some analysts were predicting in advance of launch, and I think it reflects Apple’s desire to strongly establish the product and category both standalone and relative to looming competition. $100 increments for the 32 and 64 GByte variants clearly overshoot the costs to Apple of adding requisite flash memory capacity, and I’m even less enamoured of the incremental expense to consumers of appending cellular data connectivity (along with GPS capabilities) to the platform…though I’m pleased that AT&T’s offering service on a no-contract basis. Apple’s clearly got downward room to move on pricing if customer embrace is lukewarm or if Google or another tablet provider gets pricing-aggressive (quick aside: does it also seem silly to you when an analyst firm publishes BOM cost estimates on a system that nobody’s even taken apart yet, save perhaps Stephen Colbert?). And as such, if the Credit Suisse quote is accurate, I’m amazed that Apple management was so stupid as to Osborne the iPad almost two months before it ships. But pragmatically, keep in mind that at $499, the 16 GByte iPad is only $100 more expensive than the 16 GByte iPod touch cost at its first-generation introduction 2.5 years ago.
I’ve got more to say about the iPad and its tablet competitors, specifically regarding the ARM CPU and its companion graphics-and-imaging subsystem, along with various thoughts on Adobe Flash. I’ll save part two for next week, though; for now, I welcome your feedback on what I’ve so far opined, and I also wish you all a good weekend.