The case against the iPad

Timothy B. Lee is good friend of ours. He is a member of the Center for Information Technology at Princeton University and he blogs at Bottom-Up.

Apple released a new product, called the iPad, yesterday. For those of you who don’t spend your days glued to Twitter, you can view all the details at Apple’s website. I’m not impressed. I’m a lifelong Mac fanboy, so I’m not averse to buying Apple stuff. But I have two problems with the device: first, I don’t understand who this product is marketed to. And second, I’m disappointed that Apple has decided to adopt the iPhone’s locked-down platform strategy.

It’s not clear who has an urgent need for this device. Apple’s existing product lines — Macs, iPods, and iPhones — are all focused on common activities that virtually everyone does. Most people listen to music and make phone calls. Most people need a full-scale computer. In contrast, it’s not clear what the core purpose of an iPad is. It’s too limited to fully replace a laptop — who wants to type long emails on a virtual keyboard? It’s too big and heavy to replace an iPod or an iPhone. And it’s just not clear that someone who already has a MacBook and an iPod will shell out another $500-800 for a third device.

I think the primary intended use of the iPad is as an eBook reader. But here too, the iPad falls short. Dedicated eBook raeders like the Kindle use e-ink which has two key characteristics: phenomenally long battery life and superior readability in bright light. E-Books are a nice “extra” feature for a tablet computer to have, but if that’s the primary thing people want to do, they should buy a Kindle.

My second problem with the iPad is more fundamental: The iPad appears to be Steve Jobs’s attempt to roll back the multi-decade trend toward more open computing platforms. Jobs’s vision of the future is one that revolves around a series of proprietary “stores” — for music, movies, books, and so forth — controlled by Apple. And rather than running the applications of our choice, he wants to limit users to running Apple-approved software from the Apple “app store.”

I’ve written before about the problems created by the iPhone’s top-down “app store.” The store is an unnecessary bottleneck in the app development process that limits the functionality of iPhone applications and discourages developers from adopting the platform. Apple has apparently chosen to extend this policy — as opposed to the more open Mac OS X policy — to the iPad.

With the iPhone, you could at least make the argument that its restrictive application approval rules guaranteed the reliability of the iPhone in the face of tight technical constraints. The decision not to allow third-party apps to multitask, for example, ensures that a misbehaving app won’t drain your iPhone’s battery while it runs in the background. And the approval process makes it less likely that a application crash could interfere with the core telephone functionality.

But these considerations don’t seem to apply to the iPad. Apple is attempting to pioneer a new product category, which suggests that reliability is relatively less important and experimentation more so. If a misbehaving application drains your iPad battery faster than you expected, so what? If you’re reading an e-book on your living room couch, you probably have a charger nearby. And it’s not like you’re going to become stranded if your iPad runs out of batteries the way you might without your phone. On the other hand, if the iPad is to succeed, someone is going to have to come up with a “killer app” for it. There’s a real risk that potential developers will be dissuaded by Apple’s capricious and irritating approval process.

The iPad also has a proprietary dock connector, a headphone jack, and no other ports. The net effect of this is, again, to give Apple complete control over the platform’s evolution, because the only way for third-party devices to connect to the iPad is through the proprietary dock connector. Again, this made a certain amount of sense on the iPhone, where space, weight, and ergonomics are at a premium. But it’s totally unacceptable for a device that aims to largely replace my laptop. Hell, even most video game consoles have USB ports.

The iPad book store looks like it has similar flaws. From all indications, the books you “buy” on an iPad will be every bit as limited as the books you “buy” on the Kindle; if you later decide to switch to another device, there’s no easy (or legal) way to take your books with you. I think this is an issue that a lot of Kindle owners haven’t thought through carefully, and that it will trigger a backlash once a significant number of them decide they’d like to try another device.

This is of a piece with the rest of Apple’s media strategy. Apple seems determined to replicate the 20th century business model of paying for copies of content in an age where those copies have a marginal cost of zero. Analysts often point to the strategy as a success, but I think this is a misreading of the last decade. The parts of the iTunes store that have had the most success — music and apps — are tied to devices that are strong products in their own right. Recall that the iPod was introduced 18 months before the iTunes Store, and that the iPhone had no app store for its first year. In contrast, the Apple TV, which is basically limited to only playing content purchased from the iTunes Store, has been a conspicuous failure. People don’t buy iPods and iPhones in order to use the iTunes store. They buy from the iTunes store because it’s an easy way to get stuff onto their iPods and iPhones.

Apple is fighting against powerful and fundamental economic forces. In the short term, Apple’s technological and industrial design prowess can help to prop up dying business models. But before too long, the force of economic gravity will push the price of content down to its marginal cost of zero. And when it does, the walls of Apple’s garden will feel a lot more confining. If “tablets” are the future, which is far from clear, I’d rather wait for a device that gives me full freedom to run the applications and display the content of my choice.

87 Comments for “The case against the iPad”

  1. posted by Tismey on

    If you care, or even know, what ‘Flash’, ‘multitasking’ or ‘open’ (in the sense of computing) are, then this device isn’t aimed at you. Like the iPhone before it, it’s Apple’s attempt to make computing frictionless and accessible.

    Like it or not, ‘open’ simply isn’t for the mainstream, non-technical user and I’m yet to be convinced that ‘open’ and ‘user-friendly’ are compatible attributes. The more users can fiddle with what’s under the hood, the more they can break. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier and less cluttered, but open softwrae by and large makes it more complicated because it requires more understanding and involvement from the user. And if this is what you enjoy, then good for you – you go customise the hell out of the Ubuntu install!

    But if you’re someone who just wants to check their emails, surf the web, listen to a bit of music without worrying about viruses and malware and crashes and so on, then Open isn’t the way forward. Something like iPad is.

    Before the iPhone, only nerds used the internet on their phone. Now everyone does. Same thing.

  2. posted by Richard | on

    I agree with all of your points but my inner geek is screaming out for one of these. Maybe I will wait a few months after release to buy one so they fix most of the bugs. There will be loads!

  3. posted by Mardi on

    What a narrow POV. My husband is vision impaired and reads by putting things up to his nose and “sniffing”. He is really keen to get one of these – he currently has a laptop he reads news articles, web pages, email etc on and to do so is hard work and gives him a sore neck. The iPad will be perfect for him. Niche market maybe but it demonstrates that you can’t take the narrow view on the usefulness of this product.

  4. posted by Stewart on

    @ timothy.B

    your comments’ I don’t understand who this product is marketed to’ and ‘It’s not clear who has an urgent need for this device’ remind me of what was said when the iPod was launched a few years back…

  5. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Bruce — Have you read the story “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway? The story is about a couple considering an abortion, but doesn’t once say the word “abortion” in the story. Just because it doesn’t say the word doesn’t change the focus of the story or its central theme. Sometimes you don’t have to hit your readers over the head and say, “I believe this device is clutter for me” when it is so obviously the thesis of the text.

  6. Avatar of

    posted by georgetownsandi on

    I am disappointed in this post as well. It was not well thought out as to what might be clutter or what might not, and the obvious bias without all the facts (e.g., this announcement was for developers, not consumers) is not what I’m used to seeing on this blog. My understanding is that the iPad will have 10 hours of battery life…I don’t know about you but that is more time than I will spend in one sitting or flight. It also allows for color, which the other e-readers do not. Seth Godin also has licensed a new app just for iPad…can’t be all bad if thought leaders like him are “in it.”

    Thanks to the reader for sharing the alternate viewpoint as well.

    This blog may be free, but the Unclutter Your Life book is not…and it’s a good book that has value. I wonder what it would look like on the iPad?

  7. posted by Brad Shaw on

    I have spent 3 months scanning everything to go paperless at home. This new product will allow me to pull at any of my saved documents without moving a portable around. A pad that will help unclutter the paper around the house is astounding!

    This kind of announcement should be on this site.

  8. posted by Hello iPad « Meg on

    [...] The iPad looks pretty cool. But, I’m having a hard time wondering WHY anyone would NEED one since its a cross between and iPhone and a computer…..doesn’t everyone already have those things?  I half expect Unclutterer to write about it saying that it will just add clutter to all the things you have.  Haha, I just checked their website -and they have already written about it! Check it out here. [...]

  9. posted by gypsy packer on

    Meyer hit the nail on the head. The iPad will be a blessing to the elderly, who may well receive it as a present from their children. It has a magazine-sized screen, zoom, will run Skype and keep them in touch with the kids and grandkids, and the wi-fi modem will cost little more than the Jitterbug and get them a thousand times as much service. Hulu and a Netflix account will replace the cable bill. If Apple doesn’t market this as a user-friendly, light, remote-free computer substitute to the technophobic elderly, they’re nuts. And the grandkids will adore teaching them how to use it.

  10. posted by whyioughtta on

    Couldn’t read thru all the comments, so sorry if this is repetitive, but I never got the sense that iPad is supposed to replace a laptop. Rather, it seems from Jobs’ sales pitch on the apple site that it’s more of a replacement for netbooks.

    The iPad is targetted at people like me who need a “home use” computer that I can use as my music central, that I can surf on while my husband watches t.v., and that I can read the occasional book on while travelling, etc.

    That’s how I intend to use it. Those are all things that would be irritating to try on a device as small as an iPhone or iTouch, and a laptop would be overkill. I don’t need a spade, and I don’t need a backhoe–I need a shovel. Yes, it’s possible that apple is “shovelling” it to me to, but to me the third category they’ve defined actually makes sense.

  11. posted by Steven on

    I think that the posting has some valid points, especially when you allow that any individual will have opinions and preferences.

    As an iPhone/Mac and sometimes “other” phone developer, I think it’s unfair to compare handheld devices, especially those that use cellular networks, to general purpose computers.

    * For a long email a real keyboard is best. Work emails are long, non-work tend to be short. The iPad can work for that just fine.
    * The platform is “locked-down” by Apple because the cellular carriers demand it. Android, Symbian OS, J2ME, and any other phone OS is “sandboxed” wrt the core phone OS. Apple with it’s favourable developer model has been more successful since the iPhone launch in having apps developed and deployed than all other phone manufacturers together ever.
    * The dock is proprietary, but thrid parties can develop for it. Every iPod/iPhone/iPad comes with a USB connector for the interface and developing protocols across that is easy. Likewise for dedicated devices using the interface (I’ve just completed one). The interface is no better, no worse than any other including USB, IEEE 1394, RS232, etc. Standards bodies or major industry players define interface standards and the market decides. I’d say the interface is fit for purpose.
    * If you need other interfaces, the built-in WiFi networking is really all that you need. It’s not like the iPad is meant to do movie editing and you need to hang a huge HD off it!?!

    However, after defending Apple, it’s really a question of what people think of the device. For what I do, I’d rather have a MacBook Air if I had to choose. But I don’t tend to do a lot of browsing, gaming, email, etc. from my couch at home. If I did, I’d love the iPad.

    I’ll probably get one this year, but mostly for development purposes.

    Last word: It’s easy to criticize products on announcement day and from spec sheets, and it’s usually wrong. Go get one, try it for a month, and then write an article!

  12. posted by Megan on

    Wow! What a discussion! I’m an admitted gadget gal, so I’m probably not necessarily the intended audience. I have an iPhone, a full size laptop, and a netbook (used primarily for travel), among other things. I also would like to get an ereader to unclutter and make travel a little easier. Don’t like reading novels on the netbook.

    However, for some reason carrying an ereader and a netbook for travel feels like overkill in a way that carrying a netbook and a paperback does not. (I also want the ereader for home use too-less clutter!)

    On the other hand, Flash capabilities aside, maybe I am the intended audience. I’m interested in the iPad as a possible combo netbook/ereader. I like the Kindle app for iPhone, but the screen is simply too small for me for sustained reading. I have been asking myself, “self, if I were to get an iPad, would I really need an iPhone?” Could I cut that down to a regular phone and possibly save some money only using 3g on the iPad when I travel? Don’t know yet, and that’s a highly personal preference, I think. We’ll see where things are when my netbook and iPhone get a little longer in the tooth.

    As with so many things in life, where you sit depends on where you stand, and I think this is front and center true for the iPad. I don’t see this changing the world for a lot of folks, but it could meet some niche needs really nicely.

    And who knows where this will really go–an awful lot of folks thought the iPhone would go nowhere.

  13. posted by Mletta on

    I enjoyed this honest and insightful commentary on the iPad.

    Very few in the media (who are still too much in the spell of Jobs and whatever he is hyping) really address the flaws that are inherent in some of the Apple products (for all their merits), and especially the limits of the iPad, which are many (It’s NOT a consumer-centric product).

    Jobs has done a pretty good job in the past of pushing product into the market, aided by gullible types who must have the latest “toys.”

    But people of all ages are getting a lot smarter (and less open to hype) about all electronics. They don’t just buy into whatever Jobs tells them they should want.

    One of the most telling things about the iPad? The lack of enthusiasm in the Apple stores. These folks are not leaping up and down in enthusiasm. Because they too see the limitations.

    Personally, I’m against any company trying to limit access as Apple has done. (Gee, funny how folks got crazy with Microsoft over the years for the same thing but not so much with Apple.)

    That alone turns me off to Apple.

    I’ll pay, for stuff I want, as I want it and stuff that does not penalize content providers.

  14. posted by Andy Kuziemko on

    I’m having trouble understand where the author is coming from on a few of the points he made in this post.

    1) “There’s a real risk that potential developers will be dissuaded by Apple’s capricious and irritating approval process.”

    There have been a few well-publicized cases of developers swearing off the iPhone after a frustrating experience with Apple’s approval process, but they are a tiny minority. There is a ‘real risk’ here, but the 100k+ iPhone apps and the billions of downloads make that risk really, really tiny. Why would Apple executives be afraid of continuing a policy that’s been wildly successful? This just seems silly.

    2) “But before too long, the force of economic gravity will push the price of content down to its marginal cost of zero. And when it does, the walls of Apple’s garden will feel a lot more confining.”

    Most of the songs people have on their iPods are not from iTunes. They’re either from their own ripped CDs, downloaded/stolen from the internet or ‘borrowed’ from friends. iTunes has provided an easy way to buy songs to people who either feel bad stealing, don’t know how to steal, find peer-to-peer sharing a hassle, etc. So there are walls on Apple’s garden, but they’re really low: songs from outside come in to play all the time. You can easily play any MP3 on your iPod. So what’s confining about this again?

    Lastly, I’ll say just one more thing about this post being on this blog. If the Unclutterer is about ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’, then posts like this one should probably be somewhere else.

  15. posted by Alison on

    Wow, somebody touched a nerve!

    I think the article has a perfectly good place on here, if only because Apple tends to create things that people want powerfully. I’m curious about whether the iPad will find a market – some of the points that people are making about it being a good computer for the elderly are ringing alarm bells somewhat.

    My main doubt about the ipad is its size and its strength. It’s big. It doesn’t actually look like something I could throw in a bag without scratching it, or give to my teenager without the worry of them cracking the screen within a week. It could do with a nice wee hinged lid. :0) If I were on a long commute, I’d probably use my laptop along with a phone and a book or newspaper. So, I don’t know. It feels quite niche.

  16. posted by Dan on

    I would like to say that I am torn by this device. I see it as a great step in tablet computing, but at least for myself I see no practical purpose. A main use of the tablet would be work related stuff. Taking meeting notes is theoretically easy. Take it on the plane for a business or leisure trip. It light and small, perfect for flights. Other than that the device seems to be more of a luxury item, a convience more than a necessity.

    As far as the software. It appears Apple tried to blend the two together as much as they could. I agree that im not a fan of the iphone OS on the iPad, but it may have been the choice given the processor they made for it.

    Steve Jobs, from what I can tell, is the kind of person that would sacrafice the quality of an OS for a new product. Since they used their own Apple A4 chip, it is very power efficient, but not very powerful. Even the slowest chip that any mac computer uses is a 1.86 GHz (MacBook Air), but thats dual core. I know next to nothing about the A4, but I’m willing to bet its a single core processor. The engineers at Apple would have had to seriously strip down Snow Leopard to be able to run smoothly on the iPad, unless Apple went with an intel chip set. They however, seem quite happy with themseleves for the chip that they designed for the iPad.

    I will most likely not be buying it, unless i come into a large sum of money. Between my mac, pc, and iphone, im as connected as i need to be for now.

  17. posted by Modano on

    “I think the primary intended use of the iPad is as an eBook reader.”
    I completely disagree. This is a general use device, not an e-reader with other features. The main purpose of this device is to run apps. One of those is an e-reader app. What would you say the main purpose of a laptop is? And if you did pin that down to one task, what have you accomplished?
    So many factual errors in this article. “Apple seems determined to replicate the 20th century business model of paying for copies of content in an age where those copies have a marginal cost of zero.” And what are they charging you to put apps you already on on your new iPad? The answer is $0. And music you’ve already bought? And movies? Also nothing. The AppleTV will play any ripped MP3s or DVDs perfectly fine too. The books they’re selling are ePub, the same format used by almost every other reader that exists. How do you know that you won’t be able to move them? You don’t, you’re guessing and you don’t say that. Apple policy is actually in complete contradiction to your entire assertion. Can you give an example of what you mean?
    “There’s a real risk that potential developers will be dissuaded by Apple’s capricious and irritating approval process.” That has dissuaded about a dozen developers so far. The risk seems real only in your imagination.
    Finally, all this pundit rage about the locked-down app store should go disappear. Nobody cares. The iPhone has proven that.

  18. posted by waterWolf on

    My guess is that the A4 is based on an ARM architecture, a bit like the processor inside the iPhone.

  19. posted by joss on

    “Apple’s considered ergonomic issues like displaying the device (dock) and potential extended non-touch use (keyboard dock).” So, after buying accessories, it’s a laptop that I carry in 3 separate pieces? “‘It’s not clear who has an urgent need for this device’ remind me of what was said when the iPod was launched a few years back…” But it was clear what the iPod was replacing: having to carry a portable CD player (bulky, prone to skipping), 4 AA batteries, and as many CDs as you could bring with you. I just can’t figure out what this is for. It’s not a portable DVD player. It’s not an eReader. It’s not a phone, a GPS, or a laptop. It’s not two or more of those things combined in a way that’s not worse than the separate devices I already have. It’s not something else that I don’t already have (I would love it if it streamlined my cookbooks by holding all the recipes I used, made grocery lists for me from menus, and somehow kept an inventory of what I had in my pantry, automatically adding things as I ran low.) “Yet, I can see uses for an iPad that my other devices may not as efficiently fill.” I’m waiting for someone to say what they are (or for it to become apparent in 2 months when they’re available).

  20. posted by Morgan on

    I’m agreed with the people saying this is basically an ebook reader. Pretty sure the “killer app” is the bookstore. Just like the iTunes store made the iPod what it is today. They’re mostly going after the ebook market, but adding some bonuses (i.e. web browsing, email, iphone/ipod apps, iWork etc). I see the appeal but as someone who has a laptop, I think I would just get an iPod or iPhone instead. Smaller and less obnoxious.

  21. posted by Steph on

    Hello… graphics???

    My hubby uses graphics in his work. This tablet is a godsend for him…
    Put simply: You can draw on it! With your fingers, not an awkward cursor or similar.
    This is huge. Time to open up your horizon!

  22. posted by Josh on

    Apple’s opt for closed platform does suck.. And I’m not gonna pay $9.99 for Pages, $9.99 for Numbers etc when I can use OO.o..

    But there’s no point argue about it.. It might be hot like iPhone, or flop like Macbook Air..

  23. posted by The Countess of Nassau County on

    Seth your next book should focus on the MAC user and how Apple has created a rabid customer base that will resort to curse words and insults at the slightest bit of criticism of their product. It’s amazing, in all my years I have never come across a group of customers so loyal, but also so defensive. It’s like technological fanaticism. And God bless each and every one of them.

    With MAC there is always the concern for PC users of how MAC will fit into their world. iPod shattered that like no previous MAC product had, but frankly I didn’t come away feeling this product is as seamless and that will cost them customers.

    Following up a groundbreaking product like the iPod is so daunting because the iPod is so universally appealing. I don’t think anyone out there really thinks this iPad will do what the iPod did, but like all things Apple there will be those that will laud it simply because it’s Apple. But there will also be people who see a promise to make their lives easier, let’s hope it lives up to that promise.

  24. posted by Bruce on

    Here’s an essay that I think puts the iPad into the proper perspective. Enjoy!

  25. posted by Jason on

    I totally agree with the author.

  26. posted by Danny Peck on

    You’ve put all of my thoughts on the iPad in to words. Thank you for speaking up.

  27. posted by Link post is linking « The Tiny Ouroboros on

    [...] The case against the iPad via Unclutterer [...]

  28. posted by The Case for the iPad - Fresh Blocks on

    [...] The case against the iPad | Unclutterer [...]

  29. posted by Wellington Grey on

    Meh. While I agree with all of your criticism, there is a huge audience who just doesn’t care. I know a lot of older people for whom their iPhone is their primary computer — if only it had a bigger screen! Well, that’s what Jobs just gave them.

  30. posted by Steve Hall on

    @Anne Frizell: You need to educate yourself on what Marginal Cost means. It has nothing to do with initial development costs.

  31. posted by Dave Williams on

    I’ve finally found the computer for my 85 year-old Mother in Law who is scared of computers. She can’t crash it, she can flip through the photos we send her and learn to surf the web without having to be a great typist. And when she’s not using it, It’s a digital photo frame of her kids. Perfect.

  32. posted by joss on

    Maybe what will make or break this media-consumption device is the cooperation (or lack of it) of all the media-producing industries (magazines, newspapers, books, movie studios). They seem positively averse to change. If this does for all those things what the iPod did for consuming music (can’t remember the last time I bought a CD), then I will kiss the ground under Apple’s feet. But if eBooks are $16 and Warner Brothers doesn’t want me to see a movie until after it’s been out for a few months -all in the hopes that I’ll buy a hard copy which I absolutely do NOT want- then that won’t work. Hopefully Steve Jobs drags them into the future by the britches if necessary.

  33. posted by Cheap Freeman on

    iPad for UNITASKER! :) Just saw this guy mentioning the iPad’s deficiency in the multitasking department. Will be interesting to see how that affects user experience.

    Re: Timothy B’s “…And it’s just not clear that someone who already has a MacBook and an iPod will shell out another $500-800 for a third device…”

    I would think people who own a MacBook and an iPod are among the MOST LIKELY to shell out hundreds more for whatever Apple releases next. Especially because the iPad doesn’t require an AT&T contract like the iPhone did.

    And I loved this…Gizmodo writer calling the iPad the “world’s most advanced digital photo frame”

    Jeez…all this ridiculous speculation helping to drive the news/content industry…is only rivaled by the NFL Draft. :|

  34. posted by iglad on

    there’s more actual sense in the comments than in the actual article i won’t repeat what a lot of people have already said.

  35. posted by Artsiom on

    >>Most people need a full-scale computer


  36. posted by iPad, OER, and Custom Course Web Applications / iApps « Moving at the Speed of Creativity on

    [...] too. I think Apple's view of DRM is key to this question, however. Timothy Lee's post yesterday, "The case against the iPad," is a good read on this topic since he takes issue with Apple's vision of sharing in our web 2.0 [...]

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