When Apple announced their iPad in January, my initial reaction was skepticism. Why would the iPad succeed where other tablets have failed for the past twenty years? After trying one out, the answer turns out to lie in the iPad operating system named
“iPhone OS” “iOS”.¹ iOS elegantly solves two critical problems that have plagued past tablets:
First, poor on-screen input has kept tablet computers cornered into niche “stand-up” computing markets where people have to tolerate difficult touchscreen input because they have no place to sit down to use a keyboard. Success for tablets was restricted to workplaces such as package delivery, patient care, and inventory management. The iPhone’s on-screen keyboard, however, finally conquered the touchscreen input problem and obsoleted physical keyboards on app-phones. Apple’s expansion of their on-screen keyboard solution to the larger iPad frees it from the first deficiency of the tablet world.
Hardware solves the second problem. Tablets must remain compact and lightweight for portability, respond quickly to dynamic inputs, and provide long battery life for folks in the field all day. Moore’s Law has annually doubled hardware capacity for over forty years and so you might reasonably expect that today’s computers would be blindingly fast and run on sunshine. Today’s CPUs are exponentially faster; for example, my first tablet computer, built nearly two decades ago sported a paltry 0.02 GHz “i386 SL microprocessor which [was then] several generations ahead”, but it still starts up and runs about as fast as modern hardware running Microsoft Vista. What happened to all of that computer power from Moore’s law advances!? It turns out that the coercive monopoly software vendor has continuously squandered that wealth of capacity on bloat-ware and left the end-user experience wallowing along at “sluggish”.
Apple’s iPad resolved the hardware problem by exploiting this bloat-ware gap. By rigorously keeping iOS lean, they unleash the hardware’s real capacity to deliver a superb UI. While Apple’s hardware team delivered relatively standard hardware components, that standard hardware in 2010 is several thousand times faster than my original tablet and new lithium polymer batteries hold four to six times the energy of their older NiMH and NiCAD brethren. With a great battery life and decades of Moore’s law advances to spend, the software team under Scott Forstall erased the bloat and delivered an OS where less (code) truly is more (usable). The iPad user experience is astonishingly engaging and a quantum leap ahead of anything else in the market. Even the fastest x86 computers, oozing GHz and dimming the lights for miles around, cannot throw off the shackles of traditional software to deliver the iPad’s user experience. The larger screen on the iPad delivers a substantively expanded experience beyond its app-phone predecessors.
Apple’s latest offering, using only modest hardware, leaps at your touch and then quickly gets out of the way allowing you to engage directly with your content. Comparing the iPad UI with other tablets is like comparing the experience of picking up a toy with your own hand versus using The Claw to snatch that toy from a vending machine. Your own hand’s motion barely registers in your consciousness; you just have the toy and using the iPad feels the same way. “The Claw” UI from other OS’s, in contrast, occupies your consciousness so completely that your content gets forgotten altogether. The iPad readily evokes comparison with Stephenson’s A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer or perhaps it’s actually one of Roddenberry’s Star Trek PADDs that was misdelivered a century too early and on the other side of San Francisco. Hopefully other vendors will get the message. The iPad cold boots in under 20 seconds, starts apps seemingly instantly and has access to the largest set of online books (iBooks, Kindle App, Barnes & Noble, Google Books, Wikipedia, etc…) and movies (iTunes, Netflix, YouTube, etc…) ever assembled in on a single device. Oh, and if you need to get some work done, there’s an app for that too. Multitasking arrive
sd this fall.¹
Watch out horse and buggy monopolies, the automobile has arrived!
1. Update: Apple has rechristened “iPhone OS” to “iOS” and delivered multitasking APIs.