The iPad will remain a relatively useless gimmick until proper application standards emerge

Although I didn’t think much of the iPad when it launched, the ecstatic reception it got from nearly all the tech A-listers convinced me to call the Apple Store on their ridiculous voice-recognition-based call system (you’re expected to reply to a machine asking you questions such as “Are you calling about the magical, revolutionary iPad?”) and place an advance order for one of the soon-to-be released iPad 3G models. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed, but curiosity got the better and I thought it would be amusing to try out what I had haughtily written off as a useless gadget.

On the day the machine arrived, however, I read about appallingly unattractive contractual conditions that were being forced on anyone wanting to use an iPad on Orange’s French 3G network [i]: the French plans are considerably more expensive than US ones and are capped at 2GB per month. I quickly figured I wouldn’t be needing a 3G version after all, shipped the device back to Apple and dropped into the MeatPacking District Apple Store to get a basic 16GB WiFi-only iPad, which I was lucky to lay my hands on as the entire range appeared to be entirely out of stock in Manhattan that week. This brought my bill down from $829 to $499.

I’ve been using iPhone tethering in France using Orange’s €29/month option for the past year when I need to access the Internet in Paris with my MacBook and there’s no wifi available and, at least technically, it should be possible to do the same with an iPad if you use the iPad Camera Connection Kit, circumventing both the need for a 3G iPad over a WiFi one and the need for an outrageously-priced data plan [ii]. As it is, charging for tethering, when all you’re doing is using data that you’ve already paid for in your global plan, is pushing things a bit, so you would expect subscribers to that option to be able to access it from their other devices, including the iPad, as well. Mr Steve Jobs answered a curt NO when asked about this, meaning it’s likely that tethering, even if it’s initially possible, will be somehow disabled in a future software update, but one possible option, in the US, will be MiFi.

Anyway, until I visit Paris and can test this locally, I’ve been using my new friend here daily for the past week and I thought I’d share my impressions. And while I can of course sympathise with Mr Steve Jobs’s disappointment at my lack of endorsement of his latest venture, I owe it to my readers to be totally impartial.

iPad screenshot
There are hardly any good iPad applications available at present. Worth looking at are Evernote, Dropbox and Readdle Docs, all of which enable you to share files on the cloud relatively effortlessly, something Apple does nothing to help you with out of the box.

The iPad is no substitute either for your iPhone or for your laptop

This didn’t come as a surprise to me, but so many reviewers had in effect implied that the iPad had or would somehow render existing devices obsolete that this needed checking out.

The reality is that the processor is fast and its weight ridiculously light—meaning it fits easily into a tiny messenger bag or small briefcase and is a device you can carry with you practically anywhere. But, in its current configuration, it can’t do nearly as much as a cell phone or a laptop:

  • lack of multitasking is a major joy-killer: in particular, web page navigation is hampered by the need to toggle constantly with 1Password (if you’re using secure passwords , which you should be), a Twitter or Google Reader client or any other application that wants to interact with the page; this is so aggravating that I found myself reverting to my laptop quite frequently, whenever it was available;
  • the iPad isn’t a phone: this may sound trivial, but the fact is even if you own an iPad, you’ll still be carrying your iPhone with you (this post, like every other on this blog, assumes, of course, that you are a loyal Apple fanperson and own an iPhone and a Mac); so unless there’s something the iPad can do better than the iPhone, it won’t actually be adding value;
  • expanding on the previous point, you’ll only find your iPad useful if you can install applications on it that offer convenience not available on your iPhone: my experience in the past week is that this isn’t so far the case.

Because I always have my phone on me, I also couldn’t see any point in using it to listen to music. I keep practically all my music on my iPhone and when the next generation version bumps its available memory to 64GB, I’ll be able to have my entire music library with me at all times: it simply doesn’t make sense to duplicate that on another device that doesn’t even mute when I receive a voice call. For this reason, I can’t see any point in investing in one of the versions with a larger disk, since the OS itself and any apps you install take up very little space, and any documents you install will be hosted on the cloud.

People have bemoaned the lack of a camera on the iPad, but I’m left wondering who would actually want to use a camera the size of the iPad, when the iPhone is a much more convenient size for taking pictures, especially since the next generation is expected to be equipped with an improved, 5 megapixel camera.

Even email I have found myself checking on my phone, which can be whisked out of my pocket without any fuss or anyone thinking more ado about it, rather than on my iPad. The Mail application provided by Apple for the iPad is, if anything, less convenient to use than the iPhone’s. It doesn’t even offer a unified inbox, although this will presumably be on hand in a software revision when this becomes available on the next-generation of the iPhone next month.

The iPad’s main use to me is as a glorified PDF and news reader

The iPad’s large screen, high resolution and exceptional battery life means it’s ideal for reading news on long journeys: it will happily keep me busy on the flight from Paris to New York where my laptop will die if it doesn’t have access to a MagSafe plane plug.

Unfortunately, one month after launch, the available crop of applications is pathetically bad. Available applications are also poorly coded and a lot of them crash very often. This may correct over time, but for this to happen, standards will need to emerge, as they did for the iPhone, so that apps are designed to function consistently and interact with each other better, in a way than becomes more intuitive and predictable for users. At present, the user’s experience is haphazard at best.

As Dr Jakob Nielsen, in a 93-page report evaluating the iPad’s usability, put it:

Developers are particularly challenged to make touch interfaces discoverable while preserving attractiveness and minimizing clutter,” he added. “If everything touchable clearly looks like a button, we won’t win any design awards. But if everything looks pretty and features are buried by too many images and textures, a lot of our customers won’t find important functionality.

This, obviously, is where the iPad has the biggest room for improvement: developers just don’t know how to intelligently fill that huge screen, and what they’ve been coming up with so far has been pathetically lame. When standards eventually emerge, as they did on the iPhone, this can be expected to change, but it will take a while, and because the iPad doesn’t even serve any useful purpose of its own (after all, before the App Store got under way, you could use the iPhone as a phone…), it will remain little more than an expensive gimmick in the mean time.

Over time, though, although currently the available selection is pitifully small, any application properly designed to read content will provide a better experience on the iPad than on the iPhone. The best of this poor bunch, from what I’ve seen, are currently the following:

  • Photo Pad, which syncs all my Flickr photos and enables me to show them to best advantage to friends on the iPad’s magnificent screen;
  • Evernote, a note-taking application ideally suited to the iPad which I can use to take notes at meetings and sync wireless in the background with my cloud account;
  • Dropbox, which I use to sync documents with all my other devices;
  • an interesting alternative to the native Dropbox app is Readdle Docs, which can connect your iPad to pretty well any cloud server including WebDAV servers and is painstakingly maintained by its developers.

One major peeve I have with the iPad is the lack of a decent RSS Reader, which is a pity because the iPad is ideal for reading RSS feeds and this is one of the few segments where it offers a tangible improvement over the iPhone. Most of those I tried have no added functionality beyond the basic pulling feeds. They also frequently crash. My favourite RSS reader, Fever, is unusable on the iPad and because developer Shaun Inman seems to want to stick to a strictly web-based approach, I doubt anyone else will build an iPad client for it. The best hope in the short to medium terms is probably that Silvio Rizzi’s Reeder, the best RSS application for the iPhone, will be ported to the iPad at some point in the future.

I’m also using the iPad to read the press, and I’ve been convinced to fork up €15/month for a daily facsimile online edition of Le Monde, France’s snotty left-wing intellectual equivalent of the New York Times, and the Spectator, my favourite weekly news magazine. I’m hoping The Economist and maybe the Daily Telegraph will soon be available too.

Note taking

I’ll be coupling my iPad with a bluetooth keyboard and taking it in with me to meetings, where its long battery life and large screen make it ideal for note taking.

I’ve certainly found that bringing a laptop into meetings creates a barrier with other people attending. Because an iPad is smaller and can be laid at a very slight angle, it’s obviously much more unobtrusive.

The iPad keyboard is an improvement on the iPhone’s, although having to constantly toggle to get at the apostrophe is tiresome. I also find myself regularly hitting the return key instead of M. The French AZERTY keyboard actually has neither of these two disadvantages, and the iPad seamlessly switches between languages and spellcheckers as you switch keyboards.

Again, all these improvements and more will be forthcoming on the iPhone after the coming OS 4 upgrade, so note-taking in meetings will be possible with the same speed and accuracy using a phone paired with a bluetooth keyboard.

The iPad provides further evidence of Steve Jobs’s lack of interest in the cloud

Mirroring the bizarre situation with the original iPhone 1, where the phone could only be synced via a physical connection using the iTunes interface, Apple literally provides no out-of-the-box way of syncing your data other than a cable, leaving email as the only obvious way of sharing text files written on the iPad. This incredible deficiency says a lot about Mr Steve Jobs’s inexplicable lack of interest in the cloud. Apple continues to function as if data were something you keep on your computer hard drive and only occasionally need to access from your other devices. Coming from the only company that manufactures a complete range of the best pieces of consumer hardware, I find this bizarre to say the least. The rumour that MobileMe may soon become free, if true, indicates that Apple may slowly be waking up to the realities of modern server-client operation, but it has a long way to go.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way around the issue: Simplenote, Dropbox and/or Readdle Docs all offer ways of accessing and editing files on an iPad from a cloud location.

Overall, however, the iPad has turned out much as I expected. It’s an amusing gadget that I expect to use on plane journeys and maybe in meetings. I may use it to read the newspaper, the occasional e-book and magazines, but until standards emerge governing the way in which users interact with these shiny new devices, they will remain, essentially, gimmicks for the trendy rather than serving any useful purpose.

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  1. In the US, the attractive $29/month unlimited data package with no contract attached was touted as being the consequence of iPads being sold unsubsidised, in contrast to iPhones. But the rumour that AT&T obtained an extension into 2011 of its initial exclusivity deal with Apple in exchange for this may explain the significantly less attractive deals offered in countries, like France, where Apple isn’t tied to a single provider. []
  2. An additional irritant is the WiFi issues many users have been experiencing: these are a definite reality, with both my laptop and my iPhone showing a much stronger signal than my iPad in similar circumstances. Apple now acknowledges these and says they will be fixed in a future software update. []