Having spent the better part of the last thirty-six hours leaving a trail of fingerprints over the surface of my iPad, I can report with confidence that Apple’s long-awaited tablet is a completely redundant and utterly unnecessary piece of technology. There’s little that the iPad can do that a decent laptop or smart phone cannot. By contrast, there is a long list of functions that less expensive devices can carry out with ease (such as taking photos, recording videos, or accessing Flash content on the Web) that presently the iPad cannot. The iPad is a spectacularly limited device, defined less by what it is and does than by what it isn’t and can’t do. Thankfully, it only cost me $699 (plus tax) to confirm for myself that the iPad’s naysayers were on to something when they questioned the utility of a black-boxed, closed-source mobile computer that functions only within the confines of a tightly-controlled walled garden.
That said, don’t for a second think that I’m even considering taking advantage of Apple’s 14-day return policy. For although there’s a lot that my iPad can’t do, there are a few things that it does very well. By far the iPad’s greatest virtue is its form. It’s as if it had been designed specifically to be used in places and situations where laptops can be used only awkwardly, for example, in bed. Laptops are a horrible fit for the bedroom – they can be scalding hot, they fill darkened rooms with light, and they require that you sit up while using them. None of this is the case with the iPad. Its shape is more like a book than a laptop, and it does not overheat. Moreover, there’s an external button that prevents the screen orientation from rotating automatically, allowing for hassle-free viewing and surfing in the prone position. If I didn’t know better, I might just think that Apple developed the iPad solely to solve the pressing dilemma of how to transform the bedroom into a site where members of the digerati may maintain maximum productivity and uninterrupted connectivity, all without waking up their significant others. (Fittingly, the iPad’s “performance” in the bedroom has factored prominently in early reviews of the device. In a series of tweets, a swooning David Carr of the New York Times raved about using the “sexy” iPad in bed, only later to suffer some good-natured ribbing for his pillow talk at the hands of Gawker.)
The iPod’s biggest selling point is not that it will replace your laptop, but that its the furthest thing from a laptop. Even so, the better acquainted I become with my iPad, the more convinced I become that the laptop isn’t necessarily the best point of reference for trying to figure out what the iPad is (or isn’t). I’d suggest a more relevant comparison remains to be made with the remote control. The iPad is a colossally expensive and yet delightfully satisfying remote control that will find its niche as an interface connecting users with content residing on more full-featured devices. This isn’t just another way of saying that it will factor prominently in the cloud computing “revolution.” Rather, I’d suggest that, like the remote control, the iPad’s “killer app” very well may be television.
Already I’m using my iPad to control my television set (via an app that augments my TiVo remote control with a full QWERTY keyboard); to watch television programs (via Netflix’s and ABC’s free streaming video apps); and to talk about television via Facebook and Twitter. Granted, prior to April 3 I did all of the same things on my laptop. If the iPad is to become the next iPhone (as opposed to the next Apple TV), it will be because it somehow enhances an experience that a growing number of viewers already are well acquainted with: that of dividing their attention between their television sets and their laptops.
So far, my sense is that the iPad enhances this experience by taking something away from it – namely, the laptop. Personally, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the laptop in the living room. Simply put, watching television with my MacBook in my lap has always felt a little bit like work: the posture and the gestures it involves make me feel as if I’m still at my desk writing about television as opposed to on my couch tweeting about it. The iPad, on the other hand, is far less obtrusive, and far more flexible. I can sprawl out with it on the couch without fear of receiving third degree burns. I can take it with me in the kitchen (or, full disclosure, the bathroom) during commercial breaks. Perhaps best of all, there’s no mistaking what I do on the iPad with what I do on the MacBook: the former’s multitouch interface and single-task architecture is different enough from the latter’s graphical user interface to trick me into feeling as if there actually remains some semblance of a division between my labor and my leisure. And so after only two nights in my home my iPad has earned itself a place of pride on the coffee table, where it sits right next to all the other remote controls.