Monday, June 21, 2010

iPad: The InterPersonal Computer

There’s no shortage of information on the “how” of the iPad.  Apple’s reification of Alan Kay’s Dynabook makes no sacrifices in terms of processing, communications, display—even the audio is surprisingly good.  But what does the A4 system-on-a-chip, IPS display, Wifi/Bluetooth/3G add up to in terms of experience?

Having spent a week with the iPad, I feel compelled to write down my answers to that question. The iPad is nothing short of a joy in my home.  It’s the device we didn’t know we needed: the fourth screen.  It’s the morning paper, the evening magazine, and the after dinner board game.  It’s the vacation photo album, the argument settler, and the cookbook.  The iPad is the first interpersonal computer (iPC); the PC has artfully been disguised as an intelligent, portable screen that facilitates rather than stymies interpersonal interaction.

Why did we need this device? Surely I could use Wikipanion on my phone to settle the debate on the national language of Côte d’Ivoire during the game. But, I couldn’t show you the map of the region from across the room.  I definitely could have turned on my PC and connected my TV via DLNA to show our vacation photos. But I’d rather just hand you the album to scan at your leisure.  We could get all the tiles out, flip them over, mix them up, and arrange them, but board games are much more fun (and more apt to be played) when you don’t have to set them up or put them away. I could have done an internet search for recipes that included lemon balm and printed one out, but it’s nice to just go straight from searching to cooking. If we had kids the raison d'être of this latter-day Dynabook would be handsomely fulfilled by an interactive periodic table, a sketchbook, musical toys, and a huge library of books.  For now we’ll just have to settle for loving these apps as grown-ups.

This is a device for kids of all ages, to be sure.  Each app acts as a mask, transforming the iPad to a device well-suited to the task at hand. Who wouldn’t find something to enjoy?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer some lament or prognostication on future enhancements.  This device would be truly magical if I didn’t have to plug it in and synch with iTunes.  If my photos, videos, and music were just wirelessly transported from the cloud on demand and cached locally, I wouldn’t have to wait forever to synch or chew up a bunch of space with things I rarely want. 

I would love it if the apps knew me. Maybe a fingerprint scanner could be added to help applications identify me; when I launch a game or Twitter client, if I swiped my finger it could load my saved game or timeline.  An iPC should be like a family friend, a unique relationship with each of us, but impartial and accessible to all.

AT&T+Apple could score quite the coup if the 3G was free up to a certain level of usage.  How many snowbirds would buy an iPad to stay in touch with the family back home?  How many more  business travelers would be able to keep up with their inbox without having to be nickel-and-dimed all the time?  More importantly, they would have a device that would be complete out-of-the-box; thank you for purchasing this magical screen that is connected to everyone, everywhere, anywhere you are—right now.