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Markus on Development and Publishing

This is Markus Egger's professional blog, which covers topics such as development, publishing, and business in general. As the publisher of CoDe and CoDe Focus magazines, and as the President and Chief Software Architect of EPS Software Corp., Markus shares his insights and opinions on this blog.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010
My Thoughts on the Apple iPad

As many of you probably know, I love Tablet PCs and similar devices. I have had a Tablet PC from the day they became available. I have even had a tablet device that was Windows CE based years and years ago. I have spent a huge amount of time developing for the Microsoft Tablet PC and also for Origami devices (“UMPC” a.k.a. “Ultra Mobile PCs”). I even like related devices such as Microsoft Surface, the iPhone, and e-Reading devices such as the Kindle. We have done 2 CODE Magazine special issues focusing on Tablet PC and Mobile PC development (www.code-magazine.com/focus/tabletpc). Microsoft even named me one of the world’s most influential Tablet PC and Mobile PC developers.

So with all that in mind, what do I think about the iPad?

Well, I think it is a cool device and I will def. get one! And here is why:

Ain’t I a Microsoft Guy?

As most readers of my blog probably know, I like Microsoft stuff, so I would like to add a little background information on how that impacts me feelings towards the iPad. (And of course, as a Microsoft Regional Director (RD), I am pre-disposed to liking Microsoft stuff over other products). Furthermore, I have gone on record stating that I am not a fan of Apple Macs. But yes, I have also enjoyed my iPhone. So there is a bit of an odd relationship there. At the end of the day however, I like slate devices. Ever since I first saw a tablet style device on Star Trek, I knew that I would enjoy such an experience, and I have gotten my first tablet device based on Windows CE years and years ago. Then, once Microsoft came out with true Tablet PCs, I jumped on that and spent a huge amount of time programming them and evangelizing Tablet PCs. In fact, Microsoft named me one of the most influential Tablet PC and Mobile PC developers in the world. From a magazine point of view, we have published 2 focus issues on Tablet PC and Origami development (Origami being Microsoft’s Ultra Mobile PC offering, which was supposed to be very similar to the iPad although it didn’t quite work out like that) and you can still find that content on www.code-magazine.com/focus/tabletpc. At EPS, we are also a Microsoft Surface shop, which falls into the same category in some ways.

Then, along came the iPhone and it made NUIs (Natural User Interfaces) and multi-touch mainstream. (Microsoft also has gone that direction, first with Surface and now with Windows 7). What is great about the iPhone and iPod Touch product line is that it is entirely designed with NUIs in mind. These devices run apps that aren’t adopted for multi-touch interaction, but they have been specifically created for that kind of an experience. Now, the iPad follows the same approach, and from everything I have seen so far, I think the result will be very good.

So yes, I am a Microsoft guy, but I have to acknowledge that Apple seems to have a very interesting product again (probably not as mainstream as the iPod or the iPhone, but still…). I am hoping Microsoft will come out with a competing product, because I think the original ideas around Origami were awesome and I also think that Microsoft’s Tablet PCs (current and devices that are rumored to be coming) are fundamentally better as they support true multi-tasking, pen input, handwriting recognition, and so forth. Nevertheless, I think the iPad will be a good product and it is an important step forward.

Note: With that in mind, we recently recorded an episode of CodeCast which you can download here.

A Great Experience

One of the things that is really crucial and a stand-out feature is how well Apple designed the overall experience of the iPad. I am not always an Apple UI fan, but for this, I think they knocked one out of the park. A lot of features of the iPad are available elsewhere. Sure, using a Windows 7 tablet, one can use IE to browse the web in a multi-touch fashion. Sure, the iPhone has photo albums. Sure, one can open Outlook on a Tablet PC. But the point is that the iPad provides an experience that is specifically created for multi-touch and NUI interaction.

In Windows, the web browsing experience is a GUI experience that is retro-fitted with touch support. Launching applications is done through the Windows Task Bar, which works in multi-touch scenarios, but it is not a great experience as it is optimized for mouse interaction. Sure, the Task Bar is now a tad bigger so one can interact with it using one’s finger. But if one was to start from scratch with a multi-touch UI, then one would do it completely different (as Apple and others – such as HP – have done). Try using Outlook in a NUI setup. It simply isn’t usable.

Nope, Apple has the upper hand at this point. The multi-touch UI of the iPhone/iPod Touch is done very well and it is super responsive. The iPad looks to be scaling things up. It is reportedly even more responsive than the iPhone and it provides a bigger touch area and screen. Browsing the web, reading email, watching videos, looking at photos, keeping up with Facebook, and looking at Tweets will be a treat! I entirely believe that doing all those things will be a better experience on the iPad than any other device! (For book reading on the other hand, I think the Kindle is better with its digital ink display technology and long battery life).

But it’s just a bigger iPod!

Exactly! I consider that a good thing. Some people have reacted disappointed to Apple’s announcement. I disagree! I would not want the iPad to be a scale-down Mac, because if it was, the same problems as with MS Tablet PCs would apply. I do not want to use apps designed for mouse and keyboard with some sort of half-assed touch support scheme. Instead, I want the available touch ups to become more sophisticated and scale up! And that is exactly what Apple is doing. They take the mail client from the iPhone and make it take advantage of the bigger display. The photo app looks to be a treat. Even the iWorks suite will provide a pretty cool environment for document reading and handling.

Furthermore, there are 140,000+ apps (January 2010) that are already designed entirely for multi-touch with a NUI. Let those apps grow up and provide more power within these exciting new paradigms. Scaling down a Mac (or a Netbook) would be exactly the wrong way to go as GUI apps simply don’t translate well to environments that call for NUIs.

Another aspect of the iPad being a bigger iPod is that there is a huge ecosystem of iPod/iPhone accessories that will now also work with the iPad. These accessories are already made to work with mobile devices and are thus very suitable for the iPad. Accessories made for the Mac on the other hand wouldn’t.

Personally, I have gone on record saying that I think mobile devices will largely replace desktop PCs. Why have a desktop machine when you can have a mobile device the size of a phone you can always carry with you and use in a way that provides a good experience, and when you are in the office, you dock it and use an external keyboard and monitor as the device switches into “stationary mode”. Sure, we are not there yet and it will take years to get there, but ultimately, I believe this is where things will go. And for that to be true, we will see smaller devices become more powerful and grow up, rather than current PCs shrinking down with features such as mouse and keyboard UIs and everything else that goes along with PCs. The iPad is one small but very significant step in this direction (and it supports an external keyboard and monitor).

The Size of the iPad Device

I have read online (in particular in a blog owned by a former manager of the MS Origami team) that some people think the device is too large. “When we designed the Origami, we aimed for a more mobile and portable experience” they say. But this was at a time when cell phones didn’t provide good online experiences. Today, the iPhone has revolutionized phones and entirely changed the game for what a phone can do. Reading the web is a very good experience on the iPhone (and other phones that followed). So we already have an ultra-mobile experience that works well and we do not need the iPad to be a device we always take with us wherever we go.

Instead, I see the iPad as a device I will use in my home. I will have it next to my development machine with some documentation open or a video running. I will have it next to my gaming machine or Xbox to read a strategy guide, a walk through, or the WoW Wiki. I also envision taking it on flights to have a bit of a bigger video screen than phones provide. I will take it to my granny to show her the latest pictures of ourselves or from Facebook friends. I will take it on a trip to have my travel guide and map with me. I will take it to the beach. I will use it to read email on the couch or in bed. I may even have one for the bathroom. But I will not constantly carry one in my pocket.

For all these scenarios, I believe the size of the device is going to be great. It is also very lightweight (1.5lbs… less than 1kg), which is great!

The Limitations

Of course the iPad has some limitations that are rather the bummer. No support for Flash and Silverlight. I think it makes sense from Apple’s point of view to not provide competition to the app store, but from a user’s point of view, it would be very nice to have. (And from a developer’s point of view, I would love to use Silverlight to code for this device).

Furthermore, the device has no stylus, eliminating all possibility of more accurate and sophisticated interaction. There is no handwriting recognition, which is a feature I use all the time with Tablet PCs. The touch technology Apple uses (their capacitive touch sensor) is great for finger-interaction, but it simply does not support stylus-interaction. To me, that is probably the single biggest limitation. I believe if people gave the handwriting recognition on Tablet PCs a try, they would be amazed!

Multi-tasking is a problem at this point. Developers can’t write apps that run in the background. But that limitation could probably be lifted over time.

The device doesn’t have a camera. This is an odd omission, and i predict it will be fixed in the future. A camera would enable video conferencing. I think it would be neat, but I don’t think it is quite as big a deal as people think. You are not going to use the iPad to take pictures at a party since you are unlikely to carry it along, and even if you did, it would be too unruly. Also, the way you are likely to hold the iPad, a fixed camera is unlikely to point in a useful direction. A movable camera on the other hand would be just… well… odd in a device like this. It would probably make the device thicker and the moving part would probably make it much more fragile. Perhaps it may even be better to have a camera accessory that connects with a cable…

The iPad Name

So there is a bit of a comedic factor here. Yes, I get it. Female hygiene product. Hours of entertainment value. If you are in puberty. For everyone else: Let’s move on! It’s called the iPad and I think that is a good name. It rolls of the tongue. It explains exactly what it is: A digital pad. What is a tablet exactly? What is a slate? I think “Tablet PC” is a good name for a true PC in tablet form, but for what Apple built, a “pad” is a good correlation. Furthermore, it puts the product right into the same family as the iPod, which is good as well. After all, it tells people right away to associate this with an iPod style of experience rather than a Mac experience.

It also amused me that the aforementioned gentlemen from the Origami team thought the name is “awful”, while he apparently thought “Ultra Mobile Personal Computer” was a good name for his offering. That little nugget sure keeps me entertained longer than the reference to a female hygiene product ;-).

What I think will/should happen

I think the iPad will be a success. It is a good idea. It’s time has come. And most importantly, Apple provides what appears to be a good product and pairs it with a huge marketing push which the Tablet PC and the MS UMPS never enjoyed. Furthermore, Apple doesn’t just provide the software, but it provides the device. Once again (similar to the iPhone and iPod), if you want one, there will be no doubt where to get one and what you will get. I think all this will add up to a device that will sell well and bring this type of experience into the mainstream. Of course the product is more specialized than a phone or a music player, so I would not expect this to sell as much as the iPhone or the iPod, but it will still do well, I think.

I am also hoping that Microsoft will come forth with another push in the Tablet market. There are rumors around the “Courier” tablet device. Microsoft has already shown smaller slate devices. All those things are very exciting, and – as mentioned above – I think Microsoft has technology that is better. I hope that Microsoft will come forth with a completely new UI for these devices that is built from the ground up as a NUI and I want Tablet PCs that also work in regular laptop mode to switch between the current Windows paradigm (GUI) to a NUI paradigm when needed. I also would like to see Microsoft build their own devices. I have no problem with OEMs also building devices, but I think Microsoft needs to put out a device with a feature set people are aware of, with a price point people are aware of, and with a place to buy them people are aware of. (With the Origami, Microsoft completely depended on OEMs to put together hardware that supported feature sets the OEMs picked, and a price point the OEMs set, resulting in a scenario where MS could only advertise the OS but not much more, leaving people wondering where they could get such a device… not unlike the scenarios with MS phones, really).

Oh, and for all this to make sense for MS, there needs to be marketing. I think Apple has put more marketing muscle into the iPad in the last 2 or 3 days than MS did for the entire Tablet PC and Origami efforts combined. At least it seems that way, and that is what marketing is all about, after all.

Pros and Cons

Here is a list of pros and cons of the iPad as I see them:

Advantages:

  • Great overall experience built uncompromisingly for touch
  • All iPhone apps available (140,000+ at this point)
  • Programmable the same way as the iPhone (Objective-C and MonoTouch)
  • Probably a very good Internet browsing experience
  • Probably great for email reading
  • Probably excellent for video viewing (although the aspect ratio is an old-fashioned 4:3)
  • Probably great for photo viewing (one can see the iPad as a great digital picture frame)
  • Great integration of things such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and third party apps like SlingCatcher/SlingBox
  • Lightweight (1.6lbs)
  • Instantly on
  • Very responsive (supposedly more so than the already very responsive iPhone).
  • Excellent screen
  • Relatively long battery life (supposedly 10 hours, so much longer than even Netbooks but also much less than the Kindle and other eReaders)
  • Not bad to have a new e-Reader app (iBooks) although I wouldn’t want to trade my Kindle for it (although the Kindle reader should be supported by the iPad just like it is on the iPhone)
  • An external keyboard is available as is the ability to hook it up to a monitor
  • The iPad is less expensive than a slate-only Microsoft Tablet PC (and the least expensive version will work well for most people)
  • All iPod/iPhone accessories should work with the iPad (other than the ones it doesn’t physically fit in, such as a lot of the speaker-docking-stations)
  • iWorks suite should be decent for office app needs (within reason)

Disadvantages:

  • Not a “real computer” (can’t run Mac and Windows software)
  • No camera (motion or still)
  • I haven’t tried it myself, but typing on the virtual keyboard is not something I am looking forward to. Data entry will be difficult, I bet.
  • No stylus or handwriting support
  • No support for Flash and Silverlight
  • Cost (although not compared to the iPhone) - 16GB ($499/$629), 32GB ($599/$729), or 64GB ($699/$829) – the lower price is with wireless only, while the more expensive one supports 3G (but doesn’t include the monthly cell service fee 3G requires).
  • Short battery life compared to Kindle and other e-Readers
  • Screen probably hard to read in sunshine (unlike e-Reader screens like the Kindle’s)


Posted @ 12:20 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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