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So what's it good for?

I've discussed why I would find an iPad useful. However, what are some other scenarios?

Sam Ruby presents the idea of using an iPad as a wireless display for a development machine. (This obviously depends on the quality of the VNC or other remote connect client.) It doesn't allow for moving toward independent development, which I think Tim Bray was getting at in his post "Nothing Creative" but it does allow for a reasonable facsimile. It remains to be seen whether or not the iPad would be useful as a remote terminal for a development machine.

One of my friends is working on her Master's thesis. To this end, she has had to go to several herbariums to measure specimens. Her body of research is kept on a large, heavy laptop on which she keeps the rest of her life. Traveling with the laptop is always a concern because of how important it is and how difficult transport is. Since all of her data lives in a spreadsheet currently, she could copy that to the iPad and use the Numbers app to make the changes to her spreadsheet to support added or changed data points. This would let her leave her laptop in the hotel room, or even home, keeping it safe and out of harm's way.

Joseph Kim presents ten ways that the iPad could help doctors improve patient care. I'll personally have to use one to see if I, as a patient, prefer filling out forms on an iPad rather than using paper forms on a clipboard but I can definitely see the use here. And as others see the use, it will evolve over time.

I had a realization a few days ago. If we measure the iPad purely on the scale of the clock speed of its processor (this is silly, I know), we have a handheld device with a 1 GHz CPU. PCs of this speed weren't common until 2001. (This is based on personal experience and may be slightly wrong.) According to Wikipedia, version 6.0 of Adobe Premiere Pro was released in January 2001. So the only thing preventing us from making movie content on the iPad is the lack of an application. Such an application would probably only handle editing and the encoding of raw video would be offloaded to a proper computer. It's possible we won't see anything like this on the first iteration of the iPad but we may see it in a future product generation.

I wish I could remember the exact line but in one of the episodes of the acclaimed Connections mini-series, James Burke says something like "This is one of those times where the possibilities are virtually limitless." (I wish I could remember the exact topic he's speaking of at that time too so I could refer to it and someone would correct me.) I think, I feel, that the iPad will revolutionize the way we do business, the way we use the internet, but it will take us several years to realize fully all of the possibilities because they could really be virtually limitless.

But it is not, does not...!

I've heard a lot of complaints about the iPad. Some people can't even understand why I'd want one. So I figured I'd address that.

At RoughlyDrafted Magazine, Daniel Eran Dilger is doing a series of posts debunking myths about the iPad. I'm going to try not to repeat what he's written too much since he's doing a better job than I could. However, here's a few I'll address. (He does cover two issues I commonly hear that I've omitted here: "It's just a big iPod Touch." and "It's just another Kindle.")

The bevel's too big.

Well, first, how big is the bevel? The technical specifications for the iPad state that the iPad is 9.56 inches high, 7.47 inches wide, and has a 9.7 inch diagonal screen. Since the aspect ratio of the screen is 4:3, the screen should be 7.76 inches high and 5.82 inches wide. This leaves 1.8 inches on the height and 1.65 on the width for the bevel. Divide by two and this suggests an average bevel of 0.9 inches for the top and bottom and 0.825 inches for the left and right sides.

The iPad is designed as a handheld device. Unlike a laptop, there is nothing to support it but the user's hands. Unlike a phone or other small device, it cannot fit within the palm of the user's hand. So it must be held by the user much like one would hold a clipboard or a book. To hold it, the thumb has to have a place on top of the device.

The thumb rests in the bevel. Under the assumption that my hand is average-sized, I measured the width of my thumb. My thumb is about 0.875 inches across. This correlates roughly with the size of the bevel. If the bevel were smaller, the thumb would obscure the screen.

The 4:3 aspect ratio is wrong.

This depends a lot on what you're going to use the device for. As pointed out at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, the 4:3 aspect ratio is the standard ratio for just about everything but video. Trade paperbacks, such as System Performance Tuning, are 9 inches high by 7.5 inches wide, 4:3. The PDFs generated by The Pragmatic Bookshelf for their books, e.g. the one for Metaprogramming Ruby, specify these dimensions.

Using a 16:9 aspect ratio for video would also increase the size of the device. In order for the screen to be the same width (5.82 inches), it would need to be about 10.35 inches long. Adding in the bevel and it'd be about 12.15 inches high, making it a slightly odd size. It would be tailored well for showing video but not for much else.

You can't make phone calls with it.

This seems to come from a belief that the iPad is supposed to replace the iPhone. It's not. In the keynote speech, Steve Jobs says that the iPad is intended for a role between the smartphone (i.e. the iPhone) and the laptop.

So since the iPad is not a smartphone, why should it be set up for making phone calls? The consumer presumably already has some sort of phone already that they will retain.

It doesn't support Flash.

No. And why does it need to? The iPad will come with a native YouTube app. While I agree that it would be nice to see some other flash animations, I don't see it as a necessity.

Daniel Eran Dilger addresses this some. He makes one point that bears reiterating: "Flash is the primary reason Safari crashes, and even accounts for the vast majority of Apple’s Mac OS X crash reports." If your primary goal is to provide a stable, usable device, then providing a technology that has been shown to cause instability is a non-optimal choice.

One point that he does not make is: Adobe Flash Player is itself insecure. In 2009, Adobe released five security advisories for the Flash Player, each one identified by Adobe as critical and each one possibly allowing an attacker to take control of the system. A significant amount of malware, such as Gumblar, has been distributed via these vulnerabilities in the Flash Player. Given this track record, would you want Flash on anything that should be secure?

It doesn't support multitasking.

There is some merit to this. Under the current version of the iPhone OS, when you switch away from an application, it saves its state and stops. This means that network connections are closed. If you have an SSH or VNC client running and switch applications, you then have to reconnect to the server. I can see this being annoying.

However, for most other use cases, I'm not certain this is a huge deal. Between push notifications and the available applications, this no longer seems to be an issue for instant messaging. This may be handled for most other tasks for which you would want to have a background network application running.

There's a lot of complaining about a lack of active multitasking, i.e. having multiple applications shown on the screen simultaneously. For a screen of the size of the iPad, this seems like a bad idea. While the resolution of the screen is 1024x768, it's only 7.76 inches high by 5.82 inches wide. This means there are about 132 pixels per inch. On a 15 inch diagonal screen, this was only 85 pixels per inch. So while the resolution is the same, the density is much higher and it becomes harder to have multiple windows displayed comfortably. Thinking back on that 15 inch monitor with windows overlapping windows and having to switch to check on their status (something that even plagues me on newer monitors), I am reminded of this passage from Frederick Brooks' essay "No Silver Bullet":

The so-called "desktop metaphor" of today's workstation is instead an "airplane-seat" metaphor. Anyone who has shuffled a lap full of papers while seated between two portly passengers will recognize the difference--one can see only a very few things at once.

If the desktop metaphor cannot be achieved on a physically larger monitor (or even on today's much larger monitors with much larger resolutions), how can it possibly be achieved on a smaller screen? Showing only one application, while understandably limiting, prevents the sort of madness multiple windows would create.

It's not perfect

No, it's not. But is anything?

Why I want an iPad

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Steve Jobs and Apple have announced the iPad, the long rumored Apple tablet. Name jokes aside, I think we're seeing the beginning of a revolution.

The iPad is the first piece of technology in my lifetime that I am honestly looking forward to. I think it is going to be the beginning of a revolution. I don't know where that revolution will lead or what it will mean to me as someone used and reasonably well-adapted to the current era of computers. It will certainly be interesting.

I have a lot of what I want to say about the iPad which I'll spread out over a handful of entries. Today, I'll start with why I want one, how I think I would use it.

My commute to work each day is just over an hour each way. Even though I have a laptop (an aging iBook G4), I find it difficult to do significant work during the commute. Mass transit methods are not really set up for using a laptop. When you fly on a plane, when you take a train somewhere, you have a tray table on which you can put a laptop. You don't have that on a bus, in the subway, carpooling, etc.

So I spend a lot of my time reading. (Or sleeping.) It's easy to bring a book and read it. However, if what I need to read is only available in electronic form, it becomes necessary to print it out. One of my new projects is to replace my aging webserver (which happens to host this site and others) so I have been reading server security documents. I spent $130 to have FedEx Office (formerly Kinkos) print out some of these documents.

And since I've done this once, I will likely do it again. If nothing changes, some day, another $130 will be spent to have more documents printed. If I do this three more times, the cost comes to $520, more than the cost of a base iPad. This certainly makes it cost effective, not including the definite benefits that the iPad provides over several binders of documents.

I also know in the future that I will be expected to start carrying a laptop on my commute. Between the size of most laptops and the limitations of my laptop bag, this will limit what I can carry with me. After my notebook, I can probably only carry one book. Or I can carry an iPad. Based on Apple's announced dimensions, the iPad is slightly thinner than Web Design For Developers (which is about 0.6875 inches thick). With a case, it's probably thicker but probably not more than an inch thick. Even though I like books, there is a definite sense of economy here. (This assumes that the iPad will be able to use PDFs. However, since the iPhone can, the iPad should be able to as well. And since there is so much content available as PDFs, I think that it would be a mistake for PDF support to be omitted. However, what I think the iPad will/should do is really something for another discussion.)

A 3G iPad would provide me with something I don't currently have: An internet connection usable during the commute (or, theoretically, even while traveling). (I absolutely despise doing web browsing on the Blackberry I have.) There is definite appeal in having a reliable SSH client to fix problems that arise while I'm out. Being able to check blog entries or other resources to help me research whatever project I'm working on would help. Also, to add to the sense of economy above, I know that the iPhone can use the mobile interface for Safari Books Online so the iPad should be able to as well, something my current phone cannot do.

And I find that as I think about the iPad more, I can find more uses for it for me. I don't know that I would call it "magical" but it certainly has the potential to be revolutionary. And just like the iPhone changed things, the iPad certainly will.

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