L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

28 January 2010 Blog Home : January 2010 : Permalink

Apple's (Max) iPad

Compare & ContrastSo the tech world is buzzing about the newest Apple thingie the iPad. One thing that struck the more juvenile end of the commentariat (this includes your humble author) is that the name sounds like a feminine hygiene product. Hence the comparison on the left courtesy of Dizzy.

More seriously what is it for? does it live up to the hype and will it be a success? The quick answer to the latter two is "no" and "yes". It couldn't possibly live up to the prelaunch hype so that isn't a great surprise but it is close enough and good enough that I expect it to sell in huge volume anyway.

So to go back to the first question and the related one of why people will buy it. I think the answer is that the iPad is Apple's netbook, and I think Apple agrees as you could tell by Jobs' deliberate slamming of current netbooks. So just in the same way that an iPhone took on the top end smartphones the iPad should take on netbooks and run Apple sanitized versions of the same stuff.

So compare it to something like an Asus Eee PC 1005PE. Battery life is a wash. On the plus side the iPad weighs slightly less (0.7kg vs 1.25) and the screen on the iPad is slightly bigger (1024x768 vs 1024x600). On the minus side storage is way lower (64GB max vs 250GB on the eee) and it doesn't have a webcam or a keyboard - you can buy one at a price to be determined. It also costs rather more - Amazon will sell the eee for $320 whereas the lowest spec iPad is $499. Perhaps worst from the casual punters point of view, the iPad won't browse websites with flash or java support which is going to break things. Not massively but it means special hacks and pages for popular sites such as facebook or youtube. Finally it looks to me like can't connect to USB (or SD etc.) flash drives directly but has to be synced via an external computer. In other words unlike a netbook, and like an iPod or a Kindle, this is really a content sink. It's a thing that you can read, watch or listen to stuff on and you might be able to make notes and annotate things but there's no way you can use this as a primary computer.

This is where the whole concept falls to the ground as far as I'm concerned. My Netwalker is able to do anything the iPad can do (except DRMed stuff) but it can also stand in for my main computer if I want it to. I can share files with people, I can have it set up as a server, I can plug in flash drives and USB hard disks and all sorts of other goodies. I can do practically anything that I use a computer to do (the exceptions are things like running virtual machines or intense graphics editing) and a netbook like the Asus 1005 would even do those things too.

In addition, unlike the iPad, my netbook fits in my pocket and the screen doesn't get smeary so, I will not be buying one.

Finally and this is a real deal breaker to me, there is the issue of control. As noted at LifeHacker, with the iPad, as with the Kindle, you are locked into a closed environment run by a (benevolent) dictator:

The iPad, much like the iPhone, is completely locked down. The user has no control over what she installs on the hardware, short of accepting exactly what Apple has approved for it. From past experience, we know what happens when a completely legitimate application—from a huge company that's actually partnered with Apple—doesn't gel with Apple's business plan. They reject it, and you can't use it. And what recourse does the power user have?

[...] But conceding that Apple's restrictive policies are to credit is sort of like claiming you've cured cancer because you knocked on wood every morning of your life and, as a result, never got cancer. (Sorry for the weak simile.)

What's dangerous about the iPad is that it's much closer to a "real" computer than the iPhone is. If you dock it with the keyboard accessory, it really is just a laptop, probably powered somewhere along the lines of a MacBook Air. And yet this is a computer over which you have absolutely no control. And the question is: If we all continue to buy Apple's locked-down products hand-over-fist (Jobs went so far as to talk about Apple as a mobile device company yesterday), what reason does Apple have not to keep moving forward with that model—a model that, to many, is defective by design.

It isn't just a point for hackery types like me, its a serious philosophical point for everyone. Anyone who is willing to trust that "nanny knows best" is fine with an iPad but anyone who thinks that handing over control of your gadget to some third party is a bad idea should look at alternatives.

A Philosophical Alternative

In addition to the obvious (i.e. the netwalker, kindle and other eInk readers and netbooks) there is one obvious direct competitor: the Touch Book which costs $100 less. The Touch Book looks to be pretty similar to the Netwalker in specs except for being physically larger and having more USB ports. Its also not a million miles from the iPad in raw specs too, but unlike the iPad it has a built in keybaord (like a netbook) but there is the neat option of removing the keyboard for greater portability. I think this might be a winner for some applications athough it suffers from the "doesn't fit in pocket" problem of the iPad and netbooks. Philosophically this does things the complete opposite to Apple - it's totally open software and hardware - and you are encouraged to hack it and modify things.