Thursday, January 28, 2010

Steven the lawgiver

The Wall Street Journal got it exactly right recently: “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.”

That distills the months-long tongue-wagging and online fervor over Apple’s plans to introduce an electronic tablet for access to the Internet, music and (especially) the quickly exploding e-book market. What would it look like? Would it work seamlessly with the other iProducts that we didn’t know we needed until they arrived? How deep would we have to dig in our slim wallets to buy it?

Steve Jobs, the sorcerer-in-chief at Apple, laid it all Wednesday at a news conference in San Francisco to announce ... the iPad, billed by Jobs as “our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.”

There’s a lot to recommend it. The iPad offers a mobile repository for photos, a moving link to e-mail and the Internet via WiFi, a portable studio for artwork, a panoramic platform for video games, a notepad for text entry (complete with touch-screen keyboard, an e-book reader whose 9.7-inch screen presents text and images from books and magazines in crisp color, and a device that will make use of the 140,000 applications available through the Apple App Store.

Visually, it extends the iPod/iPhone design metaphor: sleek, elegant, easily as seductive in look & feel as any of Apple’s products in recent years (somebody at the Moscone Center wolf-whistled when Jobs showed it off). And if Apple’s past practices are any guide, the iPad that drooling early adopters will swoop down on when it goes on sale in March will be tweaked and upgraded between then and Christmas.

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That would be a good thing. Technology analysts are already up in arms about certain features that should be in the iPad right now, but aren’t. Since the Safari browser is the only one available, iPad buyers will of course be locked into Apple's ecosystem right from the jump. But there's more:

The iPad doesn’t support Flash, which means any number of videocentric sites like Hulu and Disney, and hugely popular sites like ESPN, are pretty much off limits. "[The] iPad offers the best web browsing experience there is — way better than laptops," Jobs said on Wednesday, apparently unfazed by the fact that, during his presentation of the New York Times Web site home page, those devilish blue boxes with white question marks showed up in places where Flash-driven ads should have been.

The iPad doesn’t have a native USB port, which will make filesharing and file transfers more of a challenge than you’d expect from Apple; you need an adapter (optional) for that.

It doesn’t have an onboard camera, a deficiency that’s philosophically at odds with the device’s portability. While still photos would be a problem, who wouldn’t want to have the option of video chat when they move around? All the attention Jobs paid in his hands-on presentation to the ability to manipulate archived photos would seem to make having a digital video camera a no-brainer. Not in this first generation.

"Video chat fits right in with the hardware profile," said Aaron Vronko, CEO of an iPod and iPhone repair shop and author of a guide to iPhone technology. "Not having that really limits the benefit of that device. The iPad is no more capable than the iPod Touch as a communicator."

Since Jobs didn’t highlight it on Wednesday, we're left to assume there’s no way to personally adjust the iPad for brightness or contrast, which could be a problem given its LED-backlit screen; screens using the emerging OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology are said to be clearer for reading text.

And ironically (very ironically for Apple), the iPad doesn’t allow for running multiple applications at once — a truly concerning omission given the insanely great multitasking capability of the other, most successful Apple products available today. In real-world terms, the iPad’s portability is almost neutralized by its lack of multitasking power. In marketing terms, it’s a challenging, counter-intuitive reach to expect consumers to step back from expectations based on what Apple’s already proven it’s capable of doing.

JayMonster, commenting in Information Week, was decidedly underwhelmed: "I know there are going to be Apple apologists, but this is sad. The iPad as it stands now will go down in history with the Newton, Pippen, and AppleTV."

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Another problem with the iPad right out of the box has less to do with the hardware and everything to do, potentially, with its links to the Internet. AT&T will be the service provider for WiFi access — a fact that elicited boos and shouts of displeasure from the crowd at the Moscone Center when Jobs said it on Wednesday. AT&T will connect iPad owners to the Internet for $30 a month for unlimited data service, with no contract, much less than the cost of data service for a laptop.

But AT&T has already encountered a serious headwind of customer complaints, issues related both to its general mobile services and, earlier, its dedicated service for Apple’s iPhone.

On Thursday, the company admitted as much, announcing plans to spend another $2 billion to address complaints of dropped calls and sluggish downloads. On a conference call with analysts, AT&T honchos defended the company and outlined plans for improvements amid wide customer discontent, even as it admitted that iPhone service in two of the biggest markets in the country, New York and San Francisco, was below expectations.

AT&T is presumably serious about making changes, but that still can’t inspire confidence that it can handle what’s already needed for improvements to its existing service, as well as a whole new stream of customers buying iPads in the millions.

Add it all up and, for many, the iPad spells disappointment. The critics are weighing in, some in anger, some with tongues firmly in cheek. Check out midnightblade's take on how Der Fuhrer reacts to the news:

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But with all that working against it, there’s one apparently immutable law — call it a commandment, if you like — on Steve Jobs’ side of the ledger:

Thou Shalt Not Bet Against Apple. Several times in the last 20 years, Apple’s products have been met with a skeptical enthusiasm, followed by a qualified acceptance, followed by something just short of adoration as techies specifically and the public in general came to embrace Appleware — especially after various tweaks and refinements of the original product concept evolved. The iPod begat the iPod touch, which begat the large-scale touch-screen technology Jobs unveiled on Wednesday.

The iPod is a good example of this stealth transformation of the culture. Since it was introduced in October 2001, it’s gone from being an affectation to a game-changer. With more than 240 million sold, it sets the standard for mobile music devices. The iPhone, launched in June 2007, took a similar trajectory into our wired culture to become what it is today: with more than 42 million units sold, the most popular mobile phone in the world.

For those reasons, the early complaints shouldn’t be given that much weight. Sure as night follows day, the first-generation iPad machines will similarly evolve into versatile, whimsical, necessary devices we can’t see right now, and won’t see, until we stand in the lines stretching around the block to buy them.

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In the marketplace of 2010, Jobs has thrown down the gauntlet to the Kindle, Amazon’s popular e-book reader. Even in its first iteration, the iPad is more versatile than the Kindle, Sony’s Reader or Barnes & Noble Nook: it’s an e-book reader and more, and unlike the Kindle’s black-&-white-only display, the iPad hits the ground running in vibrant color that should only improve with time. This isn’t just a shot across the competition’s bow, it’s a bomb in the engine room. The iPad will step up everyone’s e-book R&D game just by being on the market in its current form.

Jobs saved the best part for last on Wednesday: When it hits stores in March, the iPad base model (16GB with WiFi) will sell for $499. Other models (32GB and 64GB) will also be available in March at various price points up to $699. Jobs said models with WiFi and 3G technology would be available in April, with prices topping out at $829 — close to what everyone was expecting to be the entry-level price.

Steven the lawgiver thus throws down another timely commandment to the competition: Thou Shalt Be Affordable. The $499 entry price sets a high bar for competitors working in the mobile-devices space.

And he puts us all on notice of how the future arrives a little at a time, until it’s the present — the everyday — we couldn’t see coming before it got here. Over time, the iPad may well become what it looks a lot like already: another everyday companion article for millions of writers, artists, gamers, e-mail addicts, music fans and photo enthusiasts. Over time, Jobs is likely to show us again what he’s shown us before: how what’s new and what’s next can be exactly the same thing.

Image credits: Jobs: Still from the Jan. 27 iPad news conference: © 2010 Apple Inc. AT&T logo: © 2010 AT&T. iPad image, Apple logo: © 2010 Apple Inc. Moses: detail from the painting by Rembrandt.


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