Friday, 28 May 2010

The iPad is here! 2. The shortcomings

I love my iPad. Don’t forget that, because in this post I want to mention some of the negatives - the things I consider to be the shortcomings of the iPad.

There’s been a lot of negative stuff out there and I’d like to comment on it a bit. I should also make it clear that I speak entirely from the viewpoint of my own needs and usage. Of course, like any other device its worth and usefulness will depend upon the individual user.

So first of all I have to say that some of the criticism which I have read is pretty thin. The biggest one appears to be the lack of Flash - but this has had no impact at all on my usage. The related criticism that it has no video it simply not true. I watch video on it all the time. (They meant no flash video, I presume - but there plenty of others). The criticisms about the lack a (front facing) camera is a minor gripe, and the lack of multitasking - another complaint that has little impact on me - will be corrected by the end of the year.

I do have my own criticisms, however, about things which matter much more to me.

The first is a small matter, but a niggle none the less. The ipad has a rounded back, which means it rocks when placed on a flat surface. This makes it impossible to use the on-screen keyboard unless the ipad is held in the hand or placed on a suitable case or riser. A flat back, or even a couple of simple clip out  legs of the kind that keyboards often have, would have overcome this difficulty, but as it is the user has to find some kind of workaround.

The second is the screen. Now don't get me wrong, in most circumstances it is stunning. It smudges easily, but wipes clean very easily too. Given this 'feature' I am little surprised that there was no cloth supplied with the iPad (well at least not with mine). The real problem is that in bright sunlight it is very hard to read. This is not so much because of the brightness of the screen, but because it is highly reflective. This, no doubt, gives such impressive results in normal lighting, but if I just want to read in the garden on a Sunny day, it is far from ideal. I’ve dicovered a simple transparent sleeve - which you can buy for pennies from Staples - help a great deal. No doubt someone will come up with a hood or screen cover of some kind that will more elegantly (and more expesively) deal with this problem.

The third complaint is linked to the one which follows, and that is that there is no simple way of printing. Yes, there are 'apps for that' which sort of work, but only sort of. They are using tricks and workarounds, but without an anchor in the operating system itself it is very hard to overcome. An email purported to come from Mr Jobs himself says that ‘print is coming’ but it isn’t here yet.

The fourth complaint is more fundamental, and this is the file system, or lack thereof.  
This is a little complicated, but is worth a careful explanation. This is probably only an issue for anyone using the ipad for work. Those using it to watch video, listen to music, surf the net, post to facebook and catch up with emails (perhaps most users most of the time) will be totally unaffected.

The iPad, like the iPhone and iPod touch does not have an open file system. That is to say that you cannot see the folders where the programs and data are kept. Individual applications can save their own files, but applications can't see the files of other applications (this is called 'sandboxing'). Now the iPad has slightly opened up this system. There's a nice feature where a file from one application can be sent to another to be opened. So, an email attachment might be opened and edited by another suitable application. Another feature allows you to send and receive files through USB, but only via iTunes. This is an odd feature in several ways.  It only relates to applications which allow it, and you can transfer files from iPad app to computer, or vice versa, but not from app to app. This is oddest in the iWork apps. In Pages (brilliant in so many ways) a document created on the iPad can be 'exported' in either doc, PDF or Pages format. But this just means that the 'exported' document then sits in the iPad Pages folder which is visible to iTunes. From there it can be imported to the PC or Mac. This is odd. It means that I can create a very attractive pdf which I can email to someone or transfer to my desktop computer by USB cable, but I can't read it in GoodReader or try and print it in PrintBureau ... unless I email it to myself, then using Open With ... Dialogue in the Mail app, open the attachment with the desired application. Cumbersome.  Sort of manageable on a wifi network, but potentially expensive on pay per gig 3G.

I really hope this will be changed soon, especially as the flatfile system of Pages is  already creaking under the 20 or so documents I have already created.

Now, as I say, this is only really an issue if you really want to do some solid work with the iPad. And it is not a fatal flaw in the iPad. There are a number of apps which can read from and often write to services like Dropbox and Google Docs, and even MobileMe, which save your files ‘in the cloud’ and so make them accessible from anywhere, but so far the ‘Office’ apps, while they can do spreadsheets and word documents, they don’t have anything like the elegance or power of Pages, Keynote and Numbers (which, incidentally, can import Excel files but can’t export as Excel). There’s a bit of a gap here which needs overcoming.

There’s is just one more gripe, or perhaps it might be an aspiration. At the moment to use an iPad you must have a Mac or a PC in order to sync and update and deal with some other processes. You can download purchases from iTunes through WiFi, and even mount the iPad as a drive, but you can’t quite do without the desktop or laptop. I’m sure that there are many users out there who would be very satisified with only an iPad, if only that were possible.

Overall, these are, perhaps, rather bitty complaints, and none of them seem insuperable in some software update or app development. I don’t think any of these are what might be called ‘a deal breaker’. I would not agree with those who say that because the iPad is version 1.0, it is not yet complete, an unfinished piece of work. This was true of the first iPhone, but not of the iPad. Certainly there will be apps that appear to do tasks that can’t yet be done. There will be software and firmware updates that plug gaps and enhance functions - indeed we know that OS 4.0 is already on the way, first for the iPhone then for the iPad in the autumn. I’m sure too that there will be improvements on the hardware - a front facing camera, flat back (!), more storage - but I honestly see these as developments, not as an indication that the iPad is incomplete.

My next (and final) post will be about what I have already used the iPad for - and how it works for me!

The iPad is here! 1. The wow factor.

The iPad is out in the UK today (May 28th), but I have been fortunate (yes, really fortunate) to have owned one for some three weeks.

In a few blogs I thought it might be interesting to give some reflections on this exciting piece of technology.

In this post I'll look at the wow factor. Next I'll consider some shortcomings as I see them, then finally I'll explain how I have already put the iPad to use.

Perhaps the first thing to say is, yes, it is exciting, VERY exciting. Ok, I am an ageing geek, and a recent convert to Apple, with all the fervour if any neophyte. So don't take my word for it. Let me tell you about the reactions of people I have showed it to. People are just wowed by it. My 78 dad has put it high on his wish list. The IT department at the school where i am chaplain took it round the departments demonstrating its potentiality with enthusiasm. People who casually ask for a glimpse are surprised and impressed.

But what is so good about it? After all, isn't it just an extra-large iPod touch, a mega iPhone without the phone? It may look impressive, but is it really useful? What can it do that is not already done by iPhone or Laptop? And aren't there other Slate devices?

Well let me make clear this is not the device to end all devices, just ad the iPhone wasn't the phone to end all phones. But just as most smartphones now have the look of the iPhone about them, so I am really convinced that the iPad has set a new paradigm which will be widely copied.

Why? Well, it’s not that the iPad is perfect (more of that in a later post). But it is very impressive.

Graphically the iPad is stunning. The colours are bright. Images are crisp and striking. It's what people notice immediately when they see the iPad for the first time. Video is really good. I've watched many episodes now of Spooks with great pleasure. Tvcatchup (the iPhone site) streams live TV beautifully, and the new BBC iPlayer beta (released only on 27th May) is similarly wonderful. The YouTube app is great too.

Surfing the web is a dream. The screen size (about A5) gives a great view of a whole page, and zooming in is easy. The text is very readable and photos great. When you surf the web you realise how great a difference the size makes. While the iPhone made the mobile experience of surfing the web manageable, the iPad makes it pleasurable. It would not be an kind of exaggeration to say that this is the best web surfing experience available. If I want to surf the web - this is the device of first choice.

And from that flows some excellent apps which draw content from the web. News apps with a high photo-content excel. IMDB is also outstanding. There are also apps such as Elements, a kind of Cd Rom (remember them?) of the periodic table which combine encylopaedic data with web links to external sites, such as Wolfram Alpha. There is plenty of scope for more, and they will be great.

As a book reader, too, the iPad functions extremely well. The iBooks and Kindle apps work beautifully (iBooks has more features, though Kindle has far more books). Turning pages, leaving bookmarks and notes and even looking up on the dictionary (iBooks) are supported. There is little need to consult help files or installation instructions - the interface is simple, inutitive and effective. There is also an excellent app FreeBooks which draws on public domain titles. It is also possible (using iTunes and iBooks) to create your own books, though I've yet to find an epub book creator that really works for me (you really need the epub format to use book readers well) Perhaps epubs, like PDFs will become standard file types for text editors in the future.

The maps app is very impressive, again illustrating what a difference the screen size makes even with basically the sane set of features as we have been familiar with on the iPhone and iPod touch.

The mail and calendar applications similarly enhance familiar functions from the iPhone and just make them, well, easier and more pleasurable. Though perhaps they also create expectations: I'm probably not the only one who's tried to move from week to week by swiping the screen.

Sitting on the desk, the iPad looks a little like one of those photo frames, and while that may seem to undervalue the device, it also indicates another use of the device which it does wonderfully well. As a way to display your photos, it is just great, and there are already some very powerful photo-editing apps available which mean that as an accompaniment to a photographer on the road - including the professional - it is very usable.

The overall experience is just, well, very impressive. My Dad desribed it as ‘magical’ and I don’t think he’d seen Steve Jobs keynote (I don’t think he even knows who Steve Jobs is).