When the Apple iPad was announced in late January, techies across the Web carped endlessly about what was wrong. It lacked a camera. It couldn't do videoconferencing. The bezel around the edge of the screen was too big. It wouldn't support Flash video. Worst of all, the Holodeck option wasn't truly immersive 3-D with full-on hot tub time-travel functionality.
By contrast, if you watched Steve Jobs' speech announcing the iPad, you might have noticed that, throughout his demo, he kept commenting on how the iPad "just works." Other Apple execs swooned about how the iPad was "cool and easy to use" or, even, "magical."
The geek-elite would have none of it. The tech blog Engagdet retorted "Magical? Really? Doesn't seem that magical to us!" PCWorld complained "Apple's iPad Just a Big iPod Touch."
I had my doubts, too. So, when Apple provided me with an iPad a week ago, I was curious to see which side was closer to the truth. After playing with the sleek tablet for much of the last week, I have no doubt that the techies were wrong and Steve Jobs was right.
First, I bet that anyone who thinks that the iPad lacks a "wow factor," will change his or her tune after playing with dazzling apps like "The Elements," a new kind of interactive book that presents the periodic table with eye-popping photography and video. The iPad's comfortable size, exceedingly sharp display and fast processor will be a powerful platform for reinventing traditional media like the book and interactive media like the Web in numerous and unimaginable ways. And the "wow factor" will only increase as innovators develop new apps to take full advantage of the iPad's unique strengths.
Second, saying the iPad is just a big iPod Touch is like saying HD video is just TV with a bigger picture. While such a statement may be technically true, it misses the deeper fact that higher resolution experiences are often radically better than their lower-resolution cousins. Watching a film on an iPhone is a pleasure when my only option is an inane in-flight movie but, given the choice, I'd much rather watch on the bigger, crisper screen like that on a laptop or iPad. I can skim a PDF on my iPod Touch but, for a 30-page document, I'd go mad without a larger display like that on a Kindle DX or the iPad. For sharing one or two digital photos, a mobile phone screen is good enough but, for slideshows with dozens of pictures, only an easy-to-use digital picture frame like Kodak's PULSE or an iPad makes any sense. The iPad's enhanced screen and processing power are not just incrementally better than the prior generations of iPods and iPhones, for many applications the iPad will offer a fundamentally different experience.
Fourth, as with the iPhone, Apple pulled off a remarkable balancing act in that it has designed the iPad in such a way that in can simultaneously appeal to both newbies and nerds. For low-tech users looking for an affordable entry-level PC, the iPad is a computer without all the distractions. For example, when my family outfitted my 90-year-old grandfather with a new computer a few years ago, he was constantly thrown for a loop by small frustrations like one window being hidden behind another. Had an iPad been available then, it would have been a perfect way to connect him to email, the Web and the drawing software he grew to love. For the tech-savvy with $500 to drop on a gadget, the iPad offers a convenient way to consume and enjoy digital media without being tethered to a computer all day.
Despite these considerable strengths, there are a few areas in which Apple's commitment to simplicity may have gone too far. In particular, the iPad offers no conventional system of files and folders for storing work. On the whole, this works fine. Word processing, spreadsheet and presentation documents can be easily imported to and exported from the iPad's iWork productivity apps (each of the iWork apps is $10). Other types of documents can be viewed, edited, exported, and emailed if the appropriate application in installed.
Some PDFs that I'd emailed myself, however, were never stored on the iPad beyond the moments in which I was reviewing them. The iPad was able to quickly and gracefully open my emailed PDFs but offered no way to save the files to the iPad for future access. Consequently, to read one PDF over several days, I had to repeatedly search for an archived email, re-download the PDF and then open it as if for the first time.
Though annoying, I imagine this sort of quirkiness can be easily fixed with a future software update or third party app. Consequently, I expect it'll be solved by someone in the not-too-distant future. So, score one point for the techies and four for Apple. And, Apple's success with the iPad is only good news for us all as it genuinely advances Jobs' vision of building computers "for the rest of us." The iPad is a remarkable device today and this is just the beginning.
Omar Wasow is an assistant professor in Princeton’s Department of Politics. His research focuses on race and politics, protest movements and statistical methods. Before joining the academy, Omar served as a regular on-air technology analyst and was co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. Follow him on Twitter.