The Wing and the Wheel
Last week, Apple launched its long-awaited tablet computer, which was something of a surprise to me as I had read that Steve Jobs had earlier given an explanation, at length, as to why he thought tablet computers were not a good idea. Now that Apple have made a success of their iPhone, they’ve upscaled it and produced a machine with the same OS but is just a bit bigger. Naturally, the launch had the fanboys raving, while others made a mockery of the name, saying it sounded like a “lady product” and that a later version of it might have wings.
To me, the name just sounded like Apple had run out of ideas. Why is it always i-everything — the i prefix has been around since the first iMacs were launched in 1998. There’s iMac and iPod which are catchy and distinctive, but most of the other variants are just lazy. The name “iPad” is too similar to iPod when the products are quite different (yes, there’s an iPod Touch, but that is the iPhone with the phone bits stripped out). It was suggested that only a man could have come up with the name, but it also sounds like a British idea (given that the designer, Jonathan Ive, is British); the pads women use are called sanitary towels over here, but even that shouldn’t have got past an American marketing panel. These jokes are critiqued at Womanist Musings:
Moving from we can’t talk about periods because they are dirty to tee hee is not really any form of progress. Having a period should be considered no different than blowing your nose, urinating, or any other body function…it should simply be unremarkable because it is part of the human existence. It’s all tee hee and periods because we are not supposed to be talking about pads and periods. Tee hee we are talking about womens bodies. In the end it’s simply reductive because it’s still tee hee women are nasty and what was Apple thinking.
It was also pointed out that pad is also used to mean a notepad or pad of paper. But jokes aside, I don’t believe that, as a mass-market device, the iPad has legs, let alone wings.
The iPad is the size of a small-ish laptop or netbook, with a screen 9.7in diagnonally. It’s not huge, but it’s not exactly a handheld. None of Apple’s pictures show any kind of holding attachment on the back; if I were to use my finger to “write” on the front, I would want to be able to hold it steady at the back, not by gripping the device at the bottom right with my other hand, thereby obscuring part of the screen (you can see this on the homepage). To hold it like that makes it easy for someone to take it out of your hand, or for it to be otherwise dislodged or for you to drop it. There is a shortage of ports on the device itself, although it has Bluetooth (so you can use a standard Apple wireless keyboard) and they will sell you a “keyboard dock” which has USB, and a camera connection kit which will allow importing from the camera or an SD card.
However, the biggest lack is of multi-tasking. For anyone under 30 who doesn’t remember the Commodore 64 or even the days before Windows 3.0 that well, that means running more than one program at a time, so you can edit documents in Word or blog entries in a content management client (like the one I’m using to write this) while gathering data for them in the browser or check your email or intermittently play some game without having to save everything to disk first. Amiga users had access to it in the late 1980s; PCs got it in the early 1990s (although it took a few years for hardware capable of doing multi-tasking to become widely available). This century, the only devices which didn’t multi-task were PDAs such as those by Palm. It’s being sold as a way of making apps work better as they get more processor time to themselves, but for many of us it’s a clear limitation. The OS used is a mobile phone OS, and besides the obvious practical reasons why a device this size doesn’t make a good mobile phone, people expect it to do meatier things than a mobile phone can because it’s almost the size of a laptop.
However, some users may find these features a blessing. Ricky Buchanan, who blogs on Mac accessibility issues and has long-term, severe ME, notes that people with motor control problems may use iPhone/iPT programs more easily on the iPad than on the smaller units. She also notes that the interface is simpler, with applications launched simply by touching their icon and no “confusing file system” meaning that you need to remember what you called something. Of course, Macs have allowed you to give a document a meaningful name for much longer than the PC has. While still on the subject of its usefulness to people with disabilities, the holding problem would not apply if the unit were mounted on something, which could include the armrest of a wheelchair, particularly a powered one. (You can actually get an iPhone app to control powered wheelchairs, which could well transfer to the iPad. Update: Ricky Buchanan’s site has posted another article on disabled use of the iPhone family of devices, this time by a quadriplegic.)
Still, the iPad is not meant as a niche product for disabled users, but as a general purpose internet tablet, phone and personal organiser. However, I find it unlikely that many people will be satisfied with a phone this big or a computer this limited. While many people will welcome the ability to read websites “on the go” on a bigger screen than available on their phone or most internet tablets, a major strike against this one is the lack of a Flash player, which means YouTube videos are out (at least until the Flash-free version is more developed) which will make it a non-starter for many internet users, including me. Regardless of the insistence of Apple’s fans, the company has had its share of flops as well, and I predict that this will be one of them.
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