First Impressions of the Everything-Slab

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I think I said I'd post some first impressions of the iPad. Well, here they are. More stream of consciousness than technical rigour, but there are plenty of technical reviews and teardowns out there already if you want to read about the A4 and debate the merits of the micro-SIM.

I will happily admit that I'm sitting on my sofa writing this in Pages on my iPad - typing in horizontal mode is a little slower than using a physical keyboard, but as I'm a touch typist the main issue isn't speed, it's the interruption in flow caused by most punctuation needing a mode switch from the alpha keyboard to numbers 'n' symbols. Other than that, typing flowing text is surprisingly easy.

When I was somewhat younger the legendary Clive Sinclair designed and marketed a portable computer called the Z88. Around that time the famous Tandy model 100 and its friends were also popular. Both these machines were rectangular slabs, with a fairly small oblong LCD display and a full-size keyboard taking up the remainder of the surface. I used to lust after the Z88 in particular, but being young and impoverished I never got one.
CambridgeZ88small.jpgIt was the Z88 I thought of yesterday when playing with the iPad. It's rather smaller than a Z88 and has about a kajillion times as much storage, but in text input mode it's basically a slab with a keyboard (albeit one that appears and disappears) and a display. One big difference is that I'm not so sure how many writers ands journalists are going to use the iPad for taking notes without an external keyboard. Another big difference is that the iPad is way more than a slab with a display. It will let you read, it will show you videos, it will play games, it will read your mail, let you paint pictures, process your photos and write blog posts. It's kind of the Everything-Slab.

This is normally the point at which the Cory Doctorows of this world adjust their ironic spectacles and pronounce in languid tones, barely able to disguise their yawns, that the iPad's "just a media consumption device". While I naturally have the profoundest respect for such clearly superior intellects, I have to disagree. If you only use the built-in apps that may be the case, but that's also the case with most of the computers sold. You can't do that much with a newly installed Windows box, and it's certainly disingenuous at the very least to imply that a newly installed Debian box is much better for the non-nerdy lay user. Sure, Apple is going to be very happy to get the revenue from selling you movies in the iTunes store, but that is just one aspect of the Everything-Slab.

Where the power lies, and where the interesting future lies, is in the apps. You can argue the merits or otherwise of the iPhone OS development process and App Store approvals (me, I think that Apple needs to be a little less heavy-handed and arbitrary, but I'm not entirely convinced a free for all is automatically the best system either), but it is producing results. You can argue if you like that nothing should exist at all unless it's an open source utopia, but like most utopian arguments it's probably unworkable. I'd rather people - ordinary people, mind, not people who scrutinise the licence for every piece of software they use to verify it's 100% free - had access to a great collection of software distributed under a less than perfect set of rules than not.

In short, this is a fascinating and practical device, more so than I had expected it to be, and I look forward to see how its story unfolds. Apple has proved people wrong in the past enough times that I think it's going to be a hit and that people are going to find some very unexpected and interesting things to do with the Everything-Slab. It's not perfect (a camera would certainly have been nice) but as the first version of a new piece of hardware it's really pretty good. The cynics can cynicise all they want, but I think they're wrong.

Final note at editing time - this post was indeed entirely written on the iPad, and typing is much less painful than I'd been led to believe. All I did on my grown-up computer was add the image and a couple of hyperlinks and post the blog entry - Movable Type's editing box doesn't play nicely with the iPad. Guess I should find a blog posting app.

The Z88 image is by Bill Bertram via Wikimedia Commons, and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.5. Thanks, Bill!

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