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Wednesday, 27 January 2010 07:23

iPad features iDon't want to see

Hype and rumour abound as to the nature, price and design of the highly-expected Apple tablet - or iPad or iSlate. I won't add to the false predictions but I'll certainly tell you what I hope it isn't.

I hope it isn't a full-sized tablet. This is likely to be a safe bet. All the rumour sites tip the iPad as 10" or similar. My local Apple reseller believes Apple will pitch the unit as complementary to your existing desktop or laptop and not as a replacement.

Just as well, because I've used tablets in the past. In fact, the first one I ever used, an early-model Compaq, pretty much turned me off the entire genre with its woefully slow Transmeta processor.

This isn't to mention the lack of tactile keyboard. As a writer I pound out words on my desktop, my laptop and even my BlackBerry. I touch type on all three but composing even the briefest of messages on tablets, PDAs or the ubiquitous iPhone is an arduous process riddled with typos.

While iPhone OS 3.0 had among its most requested features copy and paste it is perhaps a telling sign that the masses aren’t clamouring for a word processor for the tiny handheld.

That’s not purely related to size; Pocket Word is a staple feature on Windows Mobile units. No, it’s also due to the means of input being fundamentally touch and gestures and not a keyboard.

Lest you think I am a Luddite I certainly appreciate that the humble keyboard isn’t the end-all of input devices. The iPod and iPhone are wonderful devices and have a superb interface for managing media and other tasks. Microsoft’s Surface has no keyboard and has remarkable applications in retail and entertainment.

However, nobody wants to write a letter to their Aunt using Microsoft Surface. That’s ok, it’s not your regular day-to-day computer. Nobody plans to heft it around with them.

Similarly, I find it hard to believe a tablet device could ultimately be the regular carry-it-everywhere, do-everything computing device for the ordinary person in the street.

Now, in a classic case of you can’t please everyone, not only don’t I want it to be a full-size tablet I also don’t want it to be too small. I especially don’t want DRM.

Ok, so the iPad shouldn’t be a full-sized tablet. That will just be disappointing and would not prove to be a true desktop or laptop replacement for most folk.

Yet, on the other hand, the iPad had better not be too small.

I don’t know about you, but personally I’m a bit tired of netbooks. They’re cheap, true, but ultimately they’re impractical. The diminutive height, in terms of pixels, converts regular tasks or applications into a chore.

It really is staggering how many programs will fail to install on a netbook, complaining that they need at least such and such a resolution. This is even for software which shouldn’t care – like HP printer drivers and the Cisco VPN connection manager. Both express their grievances and drop out. HP’s solution is to plug your netbook in to an external monitor and then unplug the monitor once you’ve installed the printer driver!

Fortunately, the Apple tablet isn’t likely to have such qualms because it is surely 100% display surface.

Yet, even so, there is a major usability issue here. If the tablet is too large and aims to replace a computer then it’ll be a disappointment. Conversely, if it is too small and you can’t practically use it for ‘real’ work then it will similarly be a disappointment.

Certain rumours say the iPad will be a niche device, like a jumbo-sized iPod Touch, and that you shouldn’t necessarily expect to perform word processing or spreadsheeting on it. To my mind, though, unless you can genuinely run actual pragmatic dull applications on it then why not just stick to the more easily carried iPhone?

Speaking of niche devices takes me nicely to the third thing I don’t want the iPad to be known for, and that’s the scourge of Internet users everywhere, namely DRM or Digital Rights Management.

The iPad could be, according to some sites, the device which brings e-books and e-newspapers and e-comics and e-whatever-else-is-in-print to a new handheld display medium.

This may be true; e-Book readers have definitely made their way from obscurity to relative mainstream recognition but still fail to deliver a really quality experience. There is a lot of room for a player with nous to muscle in.

Apple has definitely got the experience to do it with a proven track record in bringing music to the masses.

Fortunately, even though you must (officially) use iTunes to load your iPod, you aren’t constrained to only obtaining your music from the iTunes Store. You can rip your own CDs as well as import items obtained elsewhere.

However, e-Book readers like the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle are generally less obliging. You may purchase their own proprietary format titles from their own store, with only limited options to loading on other books and documents. Some e-Book units force you to convert files to their proprietary format which is just a nuisance particularly if you’re wanting to store and read things that aren’t books like business documents – tenders, proposals, manuals and the like – which may undergo edits and changes.

Books and CDs have a fundamental difference in that one is in a machine-readable format already. iTunes can import your existing CDs but there’s no way the Apple tablet software will magically scan your paperbacks and thus Apple may argue there is little reason to permit importing of formats other than the books and newspapers which will undoubtedly be purchasable from the iTunes Store.

I don’t want that and I’m sure you don’t either. It’s not about a desire to be a rampant pirate but about being able to use the iPad for ‘real stuff’ – to be a gadget which has practical value and assists in my daily work and recreation.

If it’s nothing more than an inflexible slate with a voracious appetite for paid periodicals then I certainly don’t want it.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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