Apple's iPad: Computing's next leap forward

Its fate is tied to the success of the multitouch interface

Earlier this month, Eric Chen, vice president of the systems business group at ASUS, dismissed the iPad as just a big-screen iPhone. I agree -- though I see that as a good thing.

If we look at the history of computers, it's easy to chart their evolution: as time passes, they get smaller and more powerful -- and their design changes to keep up with the advance of technology. It's been nearly two decades since the laptop's invention, and in that time we've moved into an era where portability is as necessary as a constant connection. In this new era, the laptop form factor has become increasingly unwieldy. Unless you're sitting down, using one is an awkward balancing act; it's not exactly the best fit for an increasingly mobile world.

For years, PC manufacturers fought the inherent awkwardness of their products by building smaller and smaller laptops. These days, netbooks are all the rage, even though they're generally cramped and underpowered. But a small netbook or laptop still relies on the same, increasingly outdated design: flip-up screen and computer/keyboard base.

The iPhone changed the game

Then, in 2007, Apple changed the mobile game with the iPhone. The screen (and one main button) pretty much are the device. With the iPhone, the keyboard became virtual.

The iPhone form factor and software combination created an immersive, yet mobile, experience -- and it showed what mobile computing really is. Suddenly, people everywhere realized they no longer had to have laptops to get work done on the go; they could do it on their iPhones.

With the release of the iPad on April 3, Apple is moving to the logical next step: Portable, focused computing is getting a bigger screen -- and while Chen was right that the iPad is a big iPhone, he was wrong to dismiss it out of hand. The way I see it, once I get an iPad, my laptop may soon take the place of my desktop Mac. It's powerful enough and, if I need to move around, still portable. But for most of what I do on a laptop, the iPad should work just fine.

To understand, let's look closer at why the iPhone worked.

Apple's tablet, the iPad
Apple's iPad fills a niche that's somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop.

The iPhone provides an immersive experience because of the intentional lack of hardware buttons -- save for the obvious ones like the volume/silent, Home and "screen off" switches. By keeping the focus on software, including the triggers for traversing menus and screens, the iPhone itself disappears in the experience, with nothing standing in the way of just you and the app you're using. It was a risky move, to be sure; by removing the buttons, Apple's choice was to literally live or die by its software. Despite complaints from those who want a "real" (as opposed to virtual) keyboard, this has so far been a strategy that's worked.

Multitouch means success

The multitouch implementation on the iPhone had everything to do with its success. Direct manipulation of the iPhone, in concert with consistent software design -- Apple's hallmark -- helped usher in mobile computing for the masses.

By that same logic, I believe the iPad will usher in an age of computing for people who, until now, have eschewed computers as too complicated to understand and use. It will be the delivery on the promise Apple CEO Steve Jobs made with the introduction of the first Macintosh in 1984.

Anyone previously put off by computers because of the complications of using full-blown operating systems like Mac OS X and Windows will be interested in the iPad. Why? Because those OSs -- while easier to use than ever before -- still lack the intuitiveness inherent to the iPhone's interface and interactivity. If you know how to use an iPhone, you'll know how to use an iPad.

Apple abstracted the concept of computing with the iPhone. And with the iPad, it seems to be abstracting the computer itself, which was always Jobs' goal. Like other ground-breaking Macs, including the first Macintosh and the all-in-one iMac, the iPad arrives with compromises -- including severely restricted access to the file system and limited driver management and third-party multitasking support. Those are computing conventions that tech folk take for granted. On the other hand, the iPad also doesn't require malware scans and file defragmentation utilities and it isn't subject to the device incompatibility struggles common to full-blown computing. Apple even made software installation and deletion simple and transparent.

Even better, these concepts are nothing new, having already been executed and proven on the iPhone; the iPad simply takes them to a larger form factor and a bigger touch screen. That's where the advances offered by support for input via multitouch gestures will really shine through. The multitouch interface is important because it changes the way people use computers. You no longer need a mouse, trackball or trackpad to get stuff done, because the ability to use multitouch gestures eliminates the middleman. You just tap the screen to execute an action -- and that, by the way, offers a visceral connection to the iPhone, just as it will to the iPad. It's an intangible, but it makes you feel more connected to the device.

The bigger screen also invites software developers to envision fresh designs, since they're no longer bound by the desktop limitations of the mouse and keyboard as input devices, or by the small screens of pocket devices like iPhone. That seems to be a viable approach, since these developers are the same ones that Apple counted on to make the iPhone App Store a thriving ecosystem.

Risks for the iPad

But risks remain. The iPhone is a hit because Apple implemented text input that actually works well; for some, it's even better than an actual, physical keyboard. (I'm in that camp.) But the iPad has a much larger keypad, so typing with two thumbs, BlackBerry style, isn't possible, and resting the pad on a flat surface to type is a no-go because of the iPad's beveled design. Tap-typing with one hand while carrying it with the other might be OK for short tasks, like taking notes on the go, but resting the pad on your lap while typing seems to be the preferred method of text input.

Although the iPad supports Bluetooth keyboards, giving users another typing option, some people will stick with more traditional laptops instead of using that option. As a result, much rides on user acceptance of the iPad's virtual keyboard and whether the tactile feel it offers will overcome any awkwardness.

That said, the iPad has a lot going for it even before launch: the enormous number of applications in the App store, in concert with iBooks and iTunes and Wi-Fi (and, later, 3G) Internet access, should be more than enough to make the iPad a success. While the iPad is obviously not a full-on computing device -- its real purpose is to be a satellite device, like an iPod or an iPhone -- it is what Jobs wants: a computer that is less a computer and more of a household device, a computer that's so completely transparent that the user will be unaware that what he's holding in his hands is a computer at all.

Want to get the latest sports news? Pick up an iPad and launch ESPN's ScoreCenter app. Want to play iTunes through your home entertainment system? Pick up an iPad. Want to read a book, catch up on the news or play videos for friends? iPad. Those are what this tablet was made for: dedicated tasks in full screen. And anyone can use it. Anyone.

That's the real "magic" of the iPad: It changes our notion of computing and puts this digital age within much easier reach of just about anyone who wants to use it. Quite literally, the iPad is a computer that no one will regard as a computer.

And with that, the computing platform continues its evolution, as the three-to-five-pound laptops mobile users have grown accustomed to turn into one-pound-or-less all-purpose screens. When we look back a few years from now, we may see that Apple again steered the course of computing in a new direction.

So, in that sense, ASUS's Eric Chen is exactly right: the iPad really is like a big iPhone. And I expect it to be just as successful.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993.

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