Valley of the iPad (Part 2)

In part 1, I complained that my iPad1 had fallen into a valley of disuse between my iPhone and my MacBook. Sort of like a metaphorical version of the guy in 127 hours.

However, just like the guy in 127 hours — ok, not really. Just like another, similar thing, the iPad does completely dominate any other device in a bunch of areas. This is due to a combination of things:

  • The form factor

  • The operating system that it runs: iOS

  • The App Store, and the wide availability of quality apps therein

The form factor of the iPad doesn’t distinguish it dramatically from other devices in the same class. In fact there’s really very little to choose between the most popular ones — a few grams more or less, plastic or aluminum, etc.

What makes the iPad kick ass and take names in its category is the alluring combination of the latter two points.

The App Store Rainbow — Ben Thompson:

The greatest differentiator for iOS is the quality of its apps.

Whilst it’s the case that most things I want to do on a device split towards either the iPhone or the MacBook, leaving little need for the iPad, there is a big chunk of use-cases that are best satisfied by a tablet running apps from the iOS App Store. A very easy mistake to make when writing about technology is to judge everything based on how it satisfies your own needs. As demonstrated, for example, in that recent article by Paul Stamatiou where he really likes Android… and explains “most services I rely on daily are owned by Google.” Which is fine, but it’s all too easy to ignore the people who aren’t you, (and who maybe don’t want to cover their souls with Google stickers.)

Nick Wynja reminded me of that this morning over on ADN:

Context matters too. A nurse on the floor of the ER can’t use a laptop but needs powerful software. A lot of workers who need great software don’t sit in front of computers all day (or ever) like we do.

So whilst the iPad just isn’t there for me right now, I’d be remiss not to note that it really hits the spot for a lot of other folks. Here’s some examples of the iPad smugly excelling:

Floating guest-computer

A guest turns up at your home and needs to check-in online to their flight or look at a map to a local attraction. The iPad is ideal. You don’t want to give them your phone (heaven forbid they read your texts) but giving them your laptop is clunky and awkward and overkill. You can just hand them the iPad when they show up and feel confident that a) they’re not going through all your private correspondence but b) they have access to pretty much everything they could need to do.

Casual gaming

Purist gamers would, I’m sure, disparage the iPad as a gaming device. Certainly the platform and hardware restrictions rule out any kind of serious gaming. You probably can’t run Crysis on it.2 Where the device really excels is in the sort of casual games that people play to pass the time — especially those that keep children entertained. It’s just the right sort of level of engagement for a tablet. There are a lot of brilliant games for the iPad that showcase this. World of Goo and Infinity Blade are good examples.

One-off moments

The iPad is fantastic as a display device, for when you want to show something and don’t need it to be too interactive. For example, showing vacation photos to someone,3 or showing your portfolio to a possible client. This is one of those scenarios that crops up far less than the commercials would have you believe, but when it does… you just can’t beat the iPad.

Specific single-purpose uses

Because of the way that iOS makes a device become whatever app is running, letting it take over the screen completely, the iPad is a brilliant device to use for dedicated purposes. Probably the most obvious example of this is the rash of stores now using iPads equipped with Square as electronic registers. Other uses range from esoteric industrial interfaces to home-automation controllers.


I think it’d be tempting, given the above examples of the iPad being successful, to place it mostly in the category of “casual computing”. There’s two problems with this. The first is that “casual” has a negative connotation of inadequacy or “good enough”. Whilst the iPad might not quite stack up against other devices in terms of portability or functionality, this doesn’t mean it’s inferior. Just different.

The second problem with the “casual computing” label is that the iPad is really a precursor to the next big wave of technological advance. As I noted recently, iPads are the first capable move towards “thin” in the thin client / fat client cycle.

The problem I have with the iPad is probably an edge case: I have two Apple devices that flank it and do most things better than it. I doubt a large section of the population have that issue. And even my problem will probably disappear within the next few iterations of iOS and iPads. I wouldn’t be shocked if within a short time we saw a tablet that was capable of doing most of what you can accomplish on OS X.

The iPad isn’t a “casual device”, really, although circumstance might dictate we use it that way. I believe it’s a near ancestor to some very serious hardware. Not only that, I think it’s a giant step towards blurring the line between serious and casual computing.

In the future, there won’t be any distinction between serious and casual devices. There will just be devices, and whatever we’re doing with them at that moment.

  1. Side note: “complained that my iPad” is maybe the most first-world problem sentence fragment I’ve ever written 

  2. I’m guessing, although I bet someone out there has tried to hack it on somehow. And… yup, they have

  3. Boring…