iPad reflections

The iPad
The iPad

I have to admit, I’ve been more excited about the announcement of Apple’s new iPad than I have about almost any other new product. In amongst all the hype, John Gruber over at Daring Fireball has had the best commentary and is well worth a read.

Elsewhere on the web, it’s been particularly funny reading the comment threads on the news pieces since the launch; there are the usual suspects of die-hard Windows apologists; the Linux netbook fans and the Android fans are new factions in the community and all very vocal – there seems to be no awareness amongst them of the fact that it’s OK not to like the iPad – if they’re happy with a netbook or whatever, that’s cool. They’re not the target market.

There are two big audiences that Apple want to reach with this new category of device, other than the Apple faithful of course:

1. Existing iPhone and iPod Touch users

2. Home users who don’t use existing computing form factors for whatever reason

I’ll write a bit more about my thoughts on them and my detailed reaction to the iPad another time. In this post, I just wanted to quickly review some of the criticisms that have been raised about the iPad

1. No camera

2. No stylus or handwriting recognition

3. No support for Adobe Flash content

4. No multitasking

These are all valid points; the funny part is how absolutist some people are – “No multitasking? But I want to listen to Last FM while posting on Twitter – iPad sucks”. And so on. There’s a certain irritating solipsism shown by all these high school and college students, and their indignation that Steve Jobs didn’t make the iPad just for them.

No camera

This is quite surprising; there may be genuine technical reasons for it, but the consensus is that Apple will add this in the second generation iPads as a motivator for people to upgrade. Since the core market for Apple is existing Apple customers, you can’t criticise them too harshly if this is the case. The iPad is plenty useful and compelling enough as it is, and I don’t mind the idea of buying a second one in a year or two and letting the first generation one be the kids’ or kitchen one.

No stylus or handwriting recognition

This is less surprising; if you watch the initial launch of the iPhone again, Jobs was categorical in his distaste for a stylus, and without the stylus you can’t do handwriting recognition. There are many people who liked the handwriting recognition of the second generation Newton and still lament its passing; personally I think writing sucks as a data input medium, but there are undoubtedly cases where it could be useful, such as lectures and meetings.

I think we will see applications emerge for the iPad for which a more precise pointing tool would be useful – Brushes for example, and other drawing and painting applications. The idea of the iPad being used in the same manner as a Wacom tablet, but with the addition of being able to see what you draw just like in real life is incredibly compelling. I wonder if we may yet see some sort of stylus in future generations of the iPad, or as an aftermarket accessory of some sort.

No support for Adobe Flash content

I have one word to say to this – good.

I have been a Flash developer for a great many years, and have admittedly seen some awesome, inspiring work over the years, but sadly that’s the exception. Mostly Flash has been used for dross. The worst web experiences have often involved Flash and in modern work in my opinion, the only thing Flash should be used for – other than very isolated special cases such as file upload with realtime progress bars – is video.

And most of the criticism of the lack of Flash on the iPad centres quite reasonably on implications of the facts that this is a leisure device, that one of the main leisure activities on the web is watching video, and that most video on the web is Flash. For the big sites, it isn’t actually that big a deal for them to code support for non-Flash players using technologies like HTML 5.0 and Quicktime, and the iPad audience is definitely worth the development effort for the larger content sites. A potentially much bigger hurdle is the encoding of the video in a suitable format, but the point is there are technical solutions around it. So in due course either sites like Hulu and others will offer iPad friendly video or they won’t. Apple will be perfectly aware of the cost in lost iPad sales, if any, and have clearly shrugged it off.

But what nobody I’ve come across has mentioned is the far more fundamental reason why in my opinion we will not see Flash support on the iPhone or iPad without a significant change in the interaction model – it’s the same issue as the stylus. In iPhone OS there is no support for mouse events other than selection, activation and dragging – there’s no such thing as “onMouseOver”. Although Flash itself supports keyboard-only use, and content can be authored in such a way that you can get around without a mouse, a great deal of Flash content requires a mouse and the ability to activate UI by hovering in order to work properly.

Imagine the iPad did support Flash – how much worse would the situation be knowing that a great many of the Flash sites and interactive page elements out there would fail to work because there is no mouseover or mouseout event to detect, or because they require an interaction model that iPhone OS can’t support?

Flash developers are completely retarded when it comes to considering alternative use cases – most of them can’t even get it into their thick heads that not all users see Flash content and fail (in some cases criminally) to provide any alternative content. The chances of them bearing the potential absence of a mouse in mind for iPad or iPhone users when they don’t think of it for users with impaired vision are astonishingly slim.

This is, incidentally, one of the other reasons I hate Flash content on the web.

So – no tears here on that one.

No multitasking

I can see the objections here – it’s a chore copy/pasting between applications on the iPhone because you have to quit one app and launch the other each time you switch between them. Apple are unexpectedly positioning the iPad as a platform for content authoring using the iWork suite as well as content consumption, so this is quite a big issue. I am sure the absence of this is due to technical limitations on the device and that Apple are protecting the wider user experience by preventing users from running multiple applications simultaneously. I’m also sure that this will change in due course as the processor and RAM capabilities improve.

The bottom line is, did Apple get enough right with this first generation device for it to be a success? Based on the reports of those who have held the device in real life, and on what I’ve seen so far – I think so.