First Thoughts on Apple’s iPad

Having had a few days to play with the Apple iPad we purchased and imported into the UK, I thought it was worth sharing my initial thoughts as a follow-up to my earlier blog post written in anticipation of the launch.

The Positives

One thing is certain — virtually everyone we have shown it to agrees that the iPad lives up to Apple’s usual standard of making beautifully engineered, highly refined products with a “wow” factor. Right now, it’s the must-have gadget and a considerable status symbol in geek circles. Everyone who has one is basking in the glow of their new toy and there’s understandably a lot of excitement.

Apple’s genius is demonstrated by the fact that straight out of the box, the iPad’s a familiar experience to anyone who owns or has used an iPhone or iPod touch. Apple is so confident that it’s only put a one-page user card in the box. On one side it has a picture of the iPad highlighting the main buttons, while on the other it has some basic instructions on how to connect the iPad to iTunes.

This means that you can give the iPad to almost anyone and they can use it instantly — there’s none of the long-winded overview or instructions that I usually need to provide when I’m showing off new gadgets.

People love the vibrant screen and are amazed at how quickly it changes from portrait to landscape when the device is rotated. The sound and video quality are also superb.

That said, among the first comments most people have made when I’ve let them have a play with the iPad is how heavy it is. Its weight came as major surprise to me and I guess it underlines my view that it’s dangerous to comment on a device unless you have actually had it in your hands. I’m not quite sure why it’s so heavy; perhaps it’s that giant 25 watt-hour battery and the glass screen?

When the iPad was launched, Steve Jobs made a lot of the browsing experience and I agree that it’s one of the most engaging elements of the device. The concept of “browsing without barriers” is compelling. A gorgeous screen, no keyboard or mouse and just your finger to navigate is a superb way to access the Web. The iPad certainly delivers against the promise of “casual Internet” or “couch browsing” — a use case that I felt was a strong argument for the device when it was revealed.

Undoubtedly the iPad’s at its best when you use the optimised applications and Web pages. Right now there are 3,500 apps to choose from, but I expect this number to grow exponentially in coming weeks as developers realise what an impact you can make by using the whole 9.7-inch screen. When showing off the device, I found people almost gasped when I fired up one of the dedicated apps and the iPad sprung into life with a gorgeous splash screen.

Interestingly some people have been disappointed by the way iPhone apps are presented on the iPad. I see where they’re coming from, but at least it gives iPad owners the opportunity to access the long tail of iPhone apps and it will be only a matter of time before all the most popular apps are ported across. I was a little surprised that there are currently only 20 iPad optimised Web pages, but, again, it won’t be long before there are many more.

Another application where the iPad delivers in spades is browsing photos. As someone who takes a lot of pictures I’m always happy to find a good way to share those images with friends and family. The iPad is the best device I’ve found to date and it easily displaces a paper photograph album as the best way to share images with young and old alike.

I’ve not got around to using the iPad as a presentation device yet, but I’m sure it would work well delivering slides to a small audience if you’re using Apple iWork’s Keynote application. But is this really a typical scenario? I’ll probably have my sub-notebook with its 12-inch screen in my bag anyway, and this comes back to my scepticism as to whether the iPad is something people are going to carry around with them.

YouTube works brilliantly on the iPad, echoing my first impressions of the iPhone when I finally got my hands on one back in July 2007. Apple has really nailed how to present YouTube, and I still think Apple’s family of mobile devices offers the best way to watch YouTube videos. For me, it’s certainly better than watching them on a PC.

Of course a lot of the hype around the iPad was centred on iBooks. Some observers predicted the iPad would be the “Kindle-slayer”, and I pointed out in my earlier post that Apple undoubtedly has the infrastructure to make the most of this opportunity. However, now I’ve used the iPad I’m more sceptical than before. There’s no doubt that iBooks is a slick application and people love the way titles are presented on a virtual bookshelf. I also think that the decision to offer A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh as a free book was an inspired choice. It’s easy to read and will be used as a vehicle to sell the benefits of the iPad to sceptical family members who question why someone has spent their hard-earned money on the product. Nothing like a bed-time story for the kids on the shiny new iPad to gain a few brownie points at home!

However, the iPad’s weight means I can’t imagine actually reading an entire book on it. I think the Kindle or Sony’s eBook readers offer a far better solution for book lovers at this stage, although to be honest I’m still a fan of the good old-fashioned paperback. In my view, the iPad’s better suited to “snacking” on content provided by magazines and newspapers, and I expect this to be a big growth area. Roll on an iPad version of AutoSport, the Economist and Wired!

The final application that’s impressed me is Google Maps. I’d go as far as saying that the iPad provides the reference implementation for Google Maps on a portable device. It works fantastically well and it’s beautiful to look at. The problem is that I just don’t see how people will use it. I’m not going to walk down the street with the iPad in my hands trying to work out where I’m going, and although I’m sure someone has already created an iPad car mount, I don’t think I’ll be putting one on the car anytime soon, as I probably wouldn’t be able to see where I was going.

The Negatives

But it’s not all good news, and I’ve identified several shortcomings. First and foremost is the fact that I just don’t think I could justify buying an iPad with my own money. CCS Insight purchased one because we need to evaluate it, show it to our clients and tell them what we think of it. Of course, I’d like one for personal use but it’s not because I really need one. It would be an extravagance and as yet I’ve not found a compelling use for the iPad that would “change my life”.

There are of course other niggles as well — not least Apple’s refusal to support Adobe Flash. There seems little sign that Apple (or Steve Jobs) will change tack. There were even a couple of wise-cracks about HTML5 at the recent launch of iPhone OS 4. I can’t help wondering whether the lack of Flash on the iPad could become a thorn in Apple’s side as users become increasingly frustrated that the websites they know and love just don’t work as they expect.

Personally I’m also disappointed by the lack of camera on the device. As a frequent Skype user I think the iPad would be great for video calling.

I was dismayed that the iPad came with so few accessories. All you get in the box is a USB cable and a power supply. It’s quite a contrast from the first iPhone, which came with a dock and headphones in addition to the power supply and cable. I’d go as far as advising anyone who buys an iPad to buy a dock. If you’re going to invest in the product and it does end up living in your lounge, you’re going to want to display your status symbol. A dock would do that perfectly, rather than the iPad just lying on the coffee table with a power cord trailing from the nearest socket.

You’ll also need a case for the iPad. I’ve not tested its durability, but it seems to me that it’s a very fragile product. I’ve not let my kids near it unless they’re sitting on a soft surface like a sofa or a bed. This is a real shame, as I think the product lends itself to younger users.

So, if you’re going to buy a dock and a case, you’re immediately looking at a further $70 on top of $500 for the iPad itself, and that’s a further barrier to purchase.

Finally, the lack of extensibility is frustrating. No SD card slot is really annoying. I know this goes against everything Apple stands for, but not being able to quickly transfer images from my digital camera to the iPad is a pain. The same goes for printing, but I’m hopeful this will be addressed in forthcoming software upgrades.

Ben Wood and iPad

The Bottom Line

So what’s my conclusion? To be honest, it’s not a lot different from the opinion we came to on the day the iPad was announced. I’m still left thinking the iPad is a super-sized iPod touch, which, as my colleague Shaun points out, “just does old things bigger but not necessarily better”.

And yet only a fool would write off Apple at the first hurdle. It’s my belief Apple has locked other manufacturers out of the tablet market with the iPad. I just can’t see anyone else having anywhere near the success Apple will have. The truth of the matter is, I still want one, just like the other half a million people who have already bought one.