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Loosely organized initial thoughts on the iPad

A lot of writers and journalists are expressing disappointment in the iPad because it didn’t live up to its insane hype. What’s most interesting to me is how unsurprising most of the launch was.

Most of us had some crazy ideas. John Gruber wanted Apple to reinvent mobile computing. I wanted Apple to reinvent portable input mechanics and novice usability. I think a lot of other people wanted Apple to reinvent the laws of physics.

In reality, none of this happened. The iPad is effectively a giant iPod Touch, which itself is effectively a data-app-only iPhone.

The revolution that we already had

Nothing about the iPad is obviously revolutionary, but it didn’t need to be: the iPhone OS and iPhone hardware are already revolutionary.

Apple already reinvented John’s mobile computing and my input mechanics and novice usability in 2007 with the iPhone. We’ve had the truly magical and revolutionary product this entire time, but we take it for granted now, and we’ve forgotten how awesome it already is.

Very little was keeping the iPhone from taking a much larger role in people’s computing lives. One of the biggest factors holding back iPhone app practicality in certain areas was screen space, and that was just dramatically expanded with the iPad. I would have been just as excited in advance about the Tablet’s potential if Apple had officially told us months ahead of time that it would be a 9.7”, 1024x768 iPod Touch. (Although they’d capitalize it as “iPod touch”.)

The problem with the iPad is that, since it’s not much more revolutionary than the iPhone, it’s going to be a tough sell in the press and among most of the gadget enthusiasts that were fueling the hype.

Portability and input

Apple didn’t do anything revolutionary with the iPad’s input methods. I guess they just decided, “We’ll do what we can with the limited input mechanics that make sense here, and accept that a regular computer is still going to be best for many tasks.” It’s exactly what the iPhone did, and that seemed to work out.

Its portability is interesting and slightly problematic. Like a Kindle, you’ll bring it in a bag, not a pocket. It won’t always be with you, and one-handed operation will be impractical.

Compared to a laptop, the iPad will likely be a better device for content consumption and games, and an acceptable substitute for light productivity and entertainment. Laptops are mediocre for consumption, especially of long text.

It’s going to be clumsy and impractical to type on it with anything but your thumbs unless it’s resting on a flat surface, but your neck won’t allow you to sustain that for very long. Its keys are large, like a physical keyboard, but you likely won’t be using it as one. If my cardboard model is accurate, I suspect that it will be used mostly as a giant thumbs-only keyboard. This will be acceptable for writing brief emails and entering small text snippets, but I suspect nobody’s going to be writing nontrivial documents or blog posts without the external keyboard.

The iPad is almost the same size and weight as the Kindle DX, which I think is too large to use on a train unless you’re seated. (In addition to the difficulty and discomfort in holding the DX one-handed, doing so on a crowded train just looks ridiculous.) So the iPad is not going to be incredibly useful on the New York subway, but it’ll be great on commuter rail.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think the iPad is meant to leave the house very often. But it’s going to be great on the couch, and even better on airplanes — the unconscientious person in front of you can lean their seat back without hitting it.

Who’s buying it?

There are many fewer potential iPad owners than potential (and current) iPhone owners. One basic reason is that it’s a lot more money (now). But nearly everyone can justify having a phone — the only question is which phone, and it’s easy for people to rationalize spending a bit more money for the really nice one. The same rationale applies to iPod Touch owners: they’re already buying a portable music player, and the iPod Touch is just the medium- to high-end choice.

But few people can justify having a tablet. One of the only reasons for a regular person to buy it is if it could replace their need for a laptop, but that’s not going to be the case for the vast majority of laptop buyers. Most laptop owners use it as their only computer, and there are very few buyers for whom an iPad, as we know it today, could serve in that role. (Does it require synchronization with iTunes out of the box before it becomes usable, like an iPhone?)

Launching a $500 tech device that very few people can justify purchasing, in a recession, isn’t going to lead to a ton of sales. Maybe it will sell at a similar rate to the MacBook Air. I don’t think it will be considered a failure, but I also don’t think it will ever be as big of a hit as the iPod, the iPhone, or the Mac.

App economics

App development for iPad is less enticing than iPhone app development for most developers since the installed base is starting from zero and is likely to grow more slowly. Apps that require an iPad, or only work well on one, won’t see anywhere near the sales levels that iPhone apps achieve.

This may be a good thing: a $500, non-mainstream device can probably command more reasonable software prices. It probably won’t be as much of a chart-based roller coaster as the iPhone App Store.

But Apple set a fairly low precedent today by iWork’s apps being $9.99 each. It’s going to be difficult to sell an iPad app for above $9.99. How easy it will be to sell an app in the already difficult iPhone pricing zone of $6.99-9.99 remains to be seen.

That said, it’s going to be unlikely for any iPad apps except the most popular few to sell below $2.99 and make any noticeable amount of money for their authors.

I’d be thrilled if the iPad edition of Instapaper sold one-tenth as many copies as the iPhone edition, and I think that’s optimistic. Would you put in another 50-100% of development time to increase sales by 10%? (I’m going to, but that’s because I’m that kind of guy. I just spent months hacking the Kindle edition of Instapaper that’s used by almost nobody and makes almost no money, simply because I wanted to use it myself and I wanted it to be awesome.)

App design

I suspect that we’re going to see a lot of shovelware: apps that are technically iPad-native, but haven’t done much interface work at all to differentiate from their iPhone editions. For some apps, this will be sufficient. But for most, they’ll look strange and dramatically inferior to apps that are properly adapted to the iPad or designed for it in the first place.

Tonight, I recompiled Instapaper as an iPad app. It took almost no work, and the app works in the simulator with complete functionality and very few visual bugs. (See? There was a reason to use proper autoresizing masks in your iPhone apps even if you didn’t think you’d ever need them.)

But everything except the reading screen looks ridiculous. To complete the proper iPadization of Instapaper, I’m going to need to redesign almost every screen and much of the navigational hierarchy, maintaining both editions in parallel for the indefinite future. That’s a lot of additional expense that most app developers, even those for whom “expense” is simply measured in their time, are unlikely to undertake.

As a result, and especially since the iPad is unlikely to be as financially compelling for development as the iPhone, I expect truly great iPad apps to be rare.

Like the pricing, this would be a mixed blessing: it’s not great for iPad users who will be disappointed by the 139,000 shoddy app ports, but it’s great for the relatively few developers who produce high-quality software.

The Kindle

The iPad is not killing the Kindle. See Marc’s post for a lot of great reasons, especially the price difference.

Many people — myself most likely included — will continue to prefer the Kindle’s e-ink screen for long text reading.

Physically, the Kindle — being a much smaller device than the iPad — fits much better in many bags and winter-coat pockets and can be used single-handedly when standing on a crowded subway.

And the Kindle’s battery life is so great — it can run for weeks of casual use with wireless turned off — that you can usually not pack its charger on trips. I can’t say that about any other gadget, and I almost certainly won’t be able to say that about the iPad.

And finally…

I’m sure much of this will change over time, especially since I haven’t seen or used an iPad in person. I’m definitely buying one. I suspect it’s going to have a difficult time becoming mainstream, but it may not need to be. Mine’s going to be useful to me even if they never take over the world.

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