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The iPad: Walking Backwards for Christmas?

April 29, 2012

Apple reportedly sold more than 12 million new iPads¬† during the first quarter of this year. I’m told this means that Apple must be doing something right. But I’m wondering if the real message is that 12 million people are doing something wrong.

I’ve never been very sold on this numbers game. If there really were an equation between numbers and excellence we’d relish rats, and welcome World Wars and Windows. My upbringing as a columnist has taught me to take things as I find them rather than count the cheering crowds.

And I find the iPad unfit for purpose, if that purpose is anything other than as a sofa-side surfing tool. It’s too big, it’s too heavy and it’s too expensive.

The 10 inch screen makes this something you can’t stick in a pocket. In the 1980s “portable” meant the thing had a handle and you could lift it. Towards the end of the century the word came to mean something you could tote around in a bag. Today if it’s not pocketable like as not it’s going to get left at home.

I concede there are still people who travel around with briefcases and knapsacks. I always seem to be banging up against them on the Tube. But I believe they’re a dying race. If the dinosaurs have taught us nothing else, we’ve at least learnt from them that evolution favours those who travel light.

The iPad then is more of a lounge accessory. Apple suggests you might want to use it as an eBook reader. Have you actually tried this? I once had to give up reading the paperback edition of Roger Penrose’s gripping “The Road to Reality” because it made my arms ache. Far too much gripping was involved. The iPad weighs much the same.

Yes, you can cradle it on your arm, rest it on your lap or put it down on a table. This is what people do with the iPad. But in this case why restrict the screen to a measly 10 inches. You might as well throw in a keyboard and make it a 15 inch laptop.

This is where you remind me that the key feature of the iPad is its touch screen. Touch control gives you an intimate, immediate interaction with the device. This is why you keep wanting to pick it up, because it’s like your phone. But a lot heavier. Which is why you keep putting it down again.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a touch screen on a desktop computer is worse than useless unless you can lay the screen down flat. The arm quickly gets tired hovering around in space. Even so, the scope of touch control seems to be strictly limited, and for much of the time you’d really be a lot happier using a mouse (when probing fine detail), or, of course, a physical keyboard.

With a handheld device the advantage of these alternative methods of interacting evaporates. For the touch screen phone, your finger is king. There’s an immediacy about prodding something you’re actually holding in your hand that the more distant connection provided by physical keyboards – or even virtual keyboards displayed on a larger table- or lap-bound tablet – just can’t, er, touch.

The only kind of user-machine interaction that gets closer than this is text entry by dictation. iPad-sized devices aren’t designed for this at all, unless you’re going to fuss with wires or a Bluetooth headset. A seven inch tablet, on the other hand, can quite feasibly be taken in hand and given a talking to. Phones, of course, are even better for this purpose.

That explains, I hope, my “too big, too heavy” argument against the iPad. But why do I say “too expensive”? You might be inclined to point out that a decent 7 incher can cost as much as an iPad. And that the 5.3 inch Galaxy Note on which I’m knocking this blog together now retails at Carphone Warehouse for a sturdy ¬£600 – a couple of tons more than Apple rushes you for with its own flagship product.

Yes, but… A pocketable device that travels with you from room to room, from home to work, and everywhere else, is effectively a multiple of itself. If I’m right in regarding the iPad as a lot less portable, more of a living room fixture, then the thing won’t make sense, at least to me, until there is one in every room where I need it. For this to happen the price of the iPad needs to come down. A lot.

It could eventually happen. Back in the late ’70s the boffins at Xerox PARC envisaged exactly this: slate-sized tablet devices cheap enough to be left lying around everywhere you happened to need them. With the advent of the first iPad arguably Apple was on the right track. But this latest arrival, heavier, hotter, and reportedly 30 percent more expensive to build, seems to me the nearest possible sign that Apple is, as the Goons so memorably phrased it, “walking backwards for Christmas”.

ChB 04-29-2012, 07:34 pm