For Christmas this year, Santa brought me a collection of gift-cards which I was able to launder into a nice subsidy on an iPad2. The iPad is the only iOS device I have ever owned, and being a primarily Windows/Android/Linux type of guy, I am normally fairly resistant to its charms. I also have a lot of tech gear, so there aren’t a lot of niches left for the iPad to fill, but in spite of all that, I still really like it. It’s a genuinely cool, handy device, but the price I paid for it makes me feel like I critically failed a saving throw and my wallet took double damage as a result.
In my book, an iPad is not a replacement for a netbook or laptop, period. However, it should be noted that there is no netbook in the Apple world. Size-wise, my dedicated-to-schoolwork-netbook is roughly equal in length and width, but the netbook is a lot thicker, and weighs like a couple of pounds more. In fact, I keep my school netbook in an iPad case that is clipped to the outside of my backpack. The battery life is better than any laptop I’ve ever used, but not as good as my OG Nook. So if you want to carry just one gadget that does anything that you can name, save yourself a couple hundred bucks and buy a netbook.
It is very apparent that Apple does not want the iPad to compete with the iPhone, because while there are a ton of VOIP apps for the iPad, I have yet to find an application that will allow the iPad to ring when there is an incoming call, and put up a prompt for me to answer it, like every VOIP app ever made. The Google Voice iPhone app is great for managing text messages and voice mail since the interface is very similar to the GV website, but the iPad app does not make outgoing calls. Talkatone for the iPad will do outgoing calls over wifi, but has a terrible interface for messaging. Talkatone will “ring” when I get an incoming call, but I have yet to successfully answer one. Both apps will register a missed call.
UPDATE: I figured out the issue with Talkatone, the answer dialog looks exactly like the “slide to unlock” dialog. Also I turn the sound off a lot, which is bad for a speakerphone.
Calling on my iPad is kind of a big deal in a couple of situations, because I use Google Voice so that I don’t have to keep my mobile with me 24×7. I do this as part of my Dream Phone initiative. On the PC, voice calling was trivial, and text messaging was a problem until I ported my mobile number over to GV. On the iPad, the reverse is true. I hate sitting at a my work or home PC with a 3 screens and a 104 key keyboard, and pausing a game/movie/work to fish my phone out of my pocket to answer a text. Often when I’m at home, my phone is plugged in and sitting by my bed or sitting in the the bin that I throw all the stuff from my pockets in to, rather than at arms’ reach. With GV I can take calls and texts on my PC, and have calls forwarded to my home or work phone, which is handy when I leave my phone at home. It would be nice to have calls ring my iPad as well, but so far I haven’t found the right app for that.
An unexpected benefit for me is using the iPad to play games. The touch interface is great for tower defense games, but the hidden “wow” factor for games has been playing iPad-ified versions of board games like “ticket to ride” and “small world“. Both iPad games have “play and pass” modes where two people can play on one iPad, and ticket to ride has an internet multiplayer option, and a “local” option for two or more iPads to play via bluetooth. I highly recommend learning to play these games alone on your iPad, and then playing the physical board games with real people.
Playing touch-screen electronic versions of tabletop games has helped me realize the value of a large-scale multi-touch surface for gaming. When I saw early demos of Microsoft’s Surface interface, the only killer app I could see in it was playing the ultimate game of Dungeons and Dragons. Watch the video to the right when they put their Redbull cans on the table (around 2:20) and imagine having that stuff available for your miniatures
I like the device a lot, but it’s not perfect. My beef with the iPad is that while it does the best imaginable job of the things that Apple intended for it to do, it does a terrible job of some of the things that I want it to do. Because I am one of those dirty hippies that believes in consumer rights, I want the device that I traded all of my Christmas presents for to do what I want it to do.
I am not positive that an Android tablet would be too much different. After all, Google had to get into bed with the mobile operators as well to be allowed onto their networks just like Apple did. The buyer should just be aware that the iPad is not a general purpose computer, like a PC. It’s an appliance, like a mobile phone, and should not be expected to do whatever random thing that you can write software for it to do. I suspect that this “restrictive specificity” is endemic to the tablet platform. It probably occurs on Android and WebOS, and will probably creep up on Windows8/surface tabs as well. The market for general purpose computers is pretty competitive, and the margins on over-designed appliances are probably better. This desire to protect margins is why there is a war going on against general purpose computing:
Today we have marketing departments that say things such as “we don’t need computers, we need appliances. Make me a computer that doesn’t run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn’t run programs that I haven’t authorized that might undermine our profits.”
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea: a program that does one specialized task. After all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re taking a computer that can run every program, then using a combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer—it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.
We don’t know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some program that we don’t like, is prohibited by law, or which loses us money. The closest approximation that we have to this is a computer with spyware: a computer on which remote parties set policies without the computer user’s knowledge, or over the objection of the computer’s owner. Digital rights management always converges on malware.