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iPad
December 19th, 2010 under Digital Rights, Gadgtes, Hardware, rengolin, Software. [ Comments: none ]

I got an iPad for Christmas. Didn’t buy it, got as a gift, and I have to say that it didn’t change my point of view on Apple a single bit.

A few years ago, while getting an iBook for my sister, I had to configure it to speak French for her and still English for me, which was a pain. I wanted to run OpenOffice, only to learn that there wasn’t one. I couldn’t find the configuration files or anything that would resemble running a Unix system. Some people say I just didn’t find it in the right place, that I could have used such and such software to make it the way I like it, but that kinda killed completely Apple’s spirit of “just work”.

All in all, I was happy to go back to my old faithful Linux and eventually bought a Dell Studio, now running a vanilla Ubuntu 10.10. I used to be the hard core Linux user, compiling the kernel, changing modules and fiddling with the configuration a lot, but there’s something I’ve learned in all these years is that a desktop (or a laptop) has to just work. And having used a iBook and an iPad, the créme de la créme of usability and user experience, I have to say that, unfortunately, there is no miracle.

To summarize my experience with the iPad in a sentence: the hardware is good, the software is average, the philosophy is disgusting.

The hardware

The hardware is good, not great. First, it’s got a good CPU+GPU combo and memory enough to run some cool games without glitches. I was actually surprised with the quality of some games, and the screen resolution and the quality of the capacitive touch-scree is really something.

But the (stereo) speakers I have in my Nokia N95 are far better than the (mono) speaker in the iPad, even in quality (despite its smaller size). There is no camera, and no easy way to interconnect it to the world, unless this “world” is made of Apples. You can only print to an AirPrinter (or whatever that’s called), you can only connect Bluetooth with other iPads, maybe iPhones but it didn’t even recognize my Nokia.

Despite its lack of hardware, the case is pretty heavy, almost a kilogram. I normally think that heavy is good, but in this case, to hold the iPad while you play is quite tiring after a few minutes. I bought the Need for Speed (quite good game) and I ended up using cushions to rest my elbows after a while and a few minutes later I stopped playing because my arms were hurting.

All in all, the responsiveness and screen quality are really amazing, the rest is just not what I’d expect from Apple. However, I hear that since 2005 Apple has slowly and constantly reducing the quality of the parts not to increase the price of the gadgets. It’s a clever move for a while, works even better with a fan base (instead of customers) but that’s bound to fail one day.

Finally, a minor thing. There is a side button for the volume, and one to mute. Problem is, it doesn’t work with everything (even some things made by Apple). It’s mute and you can still hear the sounds. Even the volume works while in mute, only for those applications that ignore the mute button. The others, you need to un-mute it to hear. I expected more from Apple…

The software

The second expectation I had from Apple was that the software would be amazing. I’m not talking about third-party AppStore software, but bundled Apple software. How naive.

My experience developing software for 20 years tells me that every piece of software is crap, people just don’t realise because software engineers can hide the crap really well. Microsoft hides it behind zillions of useless features, Oracle hides it behind zillions of useless configuration steps, Google hides it in a secret box that only his advertisers can read, open source don’t hide it at all and Apple hides it by giving poisoned apples to their fan base.

Because I’m not a fan boy, I’m unfortunately exposed to the naked truth: it sucks.

First, there is no Flash. I don’t care if HTML 5 is better than Flash, the web has zillions of Flash applications, web pages, videos and animations in Flash and it’s not going to change just because Apple doesn’t like it. Youtube has moved to HTML5 (probably because of Apple), but I can’t follow links of any other pages that have flash. That sucks.

Second, Safari sucks. Try to use eBay on safari. Try to sell something on eBay using Safari… I dare you. In many other pages it broke, as in falling back to the welcome-screen. Yesterday it locked the iPad completely. I was using the Twitter application that redirected me to an youtube page, when I opened in Safari it locked. When I closed Safari, the welcome-screen was locked. I couldn’t click (tap?) on anything. Nothing worked, and you can’t turn it off (the way to go for non-unix OSs), just make it sleep. After a few desperate taps on applications, I managed to tap on the Youtube application (that wasn’t running, so far) and when I hit on another random video on it and it played, I closed the youtube app and the rest started working again.

It breaks so many times and in so unpredictable ways, that now I only use it for Gmail and Google reader, because I know those pages were hand-crafted for the iPad. As a web experience, that sucks big time.

Another big fight I had, until I got in terms with the iPad, was iTunes. In the PC, iTunes does it all: play and download songs, books and videos, buys apps, browse the university programme (excellent, by the way). When I got some songs, videos and a few apps, I went to the iPad and where was all my stuff?

Well, I found out that you must use the iPod software to listen for songs, the Video app to view videos, the iBook to read books, the AppStore to buy apps, the… wait, every time I have an argument about Linux vs. Mac, I’m constantly reminded that normal users want less applications, less complication and with Apple you (supposedly) have the same interface all over the platforms. Well, I just learnt that, with the iPad, this is exactly the opposite. I’ve seen systems better integrated than that…

Another big problem is the bloody spell checker. If you don’t speak English, you’re screwed. First, you can’t disable the spell checker and whatever you type WILL be checked and the version that stays is the spell checker version. You can disable on a word-per-word basis, by clicking on the little X button, every time you type a word. The problem is, if you’re writing in a burst, that kills your speed. Also, in some screens you can’t cancel the spell checker. It shows up with the little X but you can’t click it. Does it make sense? To show the balloon with the X that you can’t click? I expected more from Apple.

App Store

For me, it doesn’t make sense to have a computer and not be able to run programs you want in it. Ever since I wrote my first program when I was 5 years old, I learnt that that’s what a computer is. Even Apple computers at that time were like this, I had some, and I could write programs to them and run. The fact that I have to download it from an App Store is out of my comprehension. (I understand the immediate business model, but I still think that it kills in the long term, lets wait and see).

The same friends again had the excuse of it being a quality control, that Apple can control what’s going in and make sure it won’t break the user experience. Well, if you have used the iPhone or the iPad you know very well that that’s far from the truth. Most applications suck, break, explode, or are just badly coded. And let’s be honest, do you really think that Apple spend time reviewing every single application?

In the end, I found some pretty cool apps, but nothing that I wouldn’t have found if there was no App Store.

So, in a nutshell, the software side of the iPad is mediocre, at best.

The philosophy

And here’s where we get the nasty bits. I could go on and on about all the little details, but I’ve said enough already about Apple, DRM and everything. As I read in another blog reviewing the iPhone vs. Android: “Apple, I’m not your bitch”. I don’t like someone else deciding what applications I can use, what books I can read, what songs (and where) I can hear, etc, etc.

For me, this is the crucial point and to have used a iBook before and to have an iPad now, I can categorically say: I don’t like Apple products, I’m not their bitch.

Tablets

To be fair to Apple, they do get one thing right: what people want. Before the iPhone, everyone wanted something like an iPhone, but Nokia was too busy fixing Symbian to realise that (and when they finally realised, they copied Motorola). I always wanted a tablet, really, since I saw it in Star Trek, 23 years ago and I bet every one want one, too. When the first tablets arrived in the 90’s, they were absurdly expensive and only ran a few programs that actually used the tablet, in other words, the touch-screen was merely a substitute for the mouse.

What Apple did was to consolidate the interface into a simple and easy to use touch-screen, which children and animals alike can use as if it was their third hand. What is really disappointing is that they know so well what people want and give so little effort to actually make it complete. They create a very good interface and fail to consolidate the tools, they create a quality control mechanism and fail to control the quality, they give freedom to people, that otherwise wouldn’t be able to use computers, and take it away with so many restrictions, they simplify the use of so many things, and take away the basic assumptions people have about things, like being able to play songs anywhere or to borrow a book from a friend.

It’s amazing that a high tech company such as Apple haven’t yet realised that technology changes the way people live, communicate and do business. There’s no point is give half the freedom technology allows you to, just because you can’t monetise the other half. I’m sure Apple has lots of good people inside that could share some ideas on how to progress without handcuffs, if they would just listen to them…

In the end, tablets are really as great as I thought they would be, and I’m loving it. Pity it’s an Apple tablet… However, that gave me reassurance that I must buy an Android tablet next year or so, when they become as good as I hope them to be.

Final Veredict

  • Idea: 0, at least 23 years old and has been done before many times.
  • Time-to-market: 10, as usual, first to make it right.
  • Hardware: 7, a camera and good speakers would do nice.
  • Software: 5, Flash, Safari don’t work well, bad AppStore quality.
  • Integration: 3, only interconnects with Apple, DRM, iTunes on iPad.
  • Usability: 7, the interface is good and simple and always ready to work.
  • Philosophy: 0, DRM, dev. license only works on Macs.
  • Average: 4.6, don’t buy, wait for the Android tablets to arrive in full.


 


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