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The iPad is not the future, but what a great signpost

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Few consumer technology products outside of the iPod and iPhone have inspired as much blind loyalty as the next offspring in Apple’s quest to dominate the information iWay. The iPad is loved, admired, adored, and worshipped by its users. The limitations of the device are almost completely ignored in this fan frenzy. But then, so is its true significance, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the first instalment of a regular column in Gadget.

How is it that a device as fundamentally flawed as the iPad can be so successful that it is the single most aspirational device in the industrialised world in 2010?

Or, to be more specific and mundane, how can a device with no USB port and no file management system worth talking about be confused with a tool for productivity?

Think about it: you cannot use the iPad in its own right: it must be tethered to another device with which you must synchronise it in order to transfer files, data and the minutiae of your working life.  Merely to switch it on and set it up, you have to connect it to a computer. Does that mean the iPad isn’t really a computer in its own right?

The truth is, of course it’s a computer. But it’s a computer designed to be used on Planet Jobs, meaning that whatever Steve Jobs thinks should be allowed onto it, will be allowed. Whatever he doesn’t want associated with his baby, you are going to have to trick your machine into doing.

So why aren’t we hearing the howls of indignation? Why is Steve Jobs not dodging the lynch mobs? Why is Steve Ballmer still pondering a switch to a black polo-neck (but Microsoft-branded)  sweater?

The secret is in how the iPad handles its own ecosystem. It is a thing of beauty. Never before has reading a magazine, comic or book on an electronic device looked so damned good. Never before has a computing device offered so intuitive an interface. Never before has a computer demanded so insistently that it be touched. And touched. And touched.

Enough has been written about what one can do on the iPad, and perhaps not enough on what one can’t do on it. I won’t dwell on either.  I believe the iPad is a work in progress. Not only by Apple, but by every developer of new formats, ranging from netbooks to tablets to hybrids.

The truly important question is what we will be able to do on iPads and equivalent devices as they evolve.  And the implications of that question also hold the key to the near future of computing, information management and productivity itself.

The flaws in the iPad – and there are many more – are very arguably intentional. They give Apple a roadmap on which it can position several generations of upgrades. Why NOT put in USB ports? Why NOT include dual 3G/WiFi capability as standard on all models? (It costs a few dollars more, but Apple is able to ratchet that up into the next price bracket? Why NOT offer an extra port for a 3G modem? Why NOT let us run two programs at the same time? Why NOT build in a camera? Why NOT allow Flash…?

Oh we know the answer to the last one: it’s not Made in Apple.

The result of the closed garden Steve Jobs is trying to create is that, among users, as much effort is going into “jailbreaking” the iPad as in getting the most out of approved apps. That means when the iPad rivals become just as good, but offer an open ecosystem with access to any applications, communications mediums and even one’s own data – sheesh, you can’t even file a photo where you’d prefer it on your iPad – Apple will have a fight on its hand. The only way to hold off the barbarians at the gate will be to keep releasing product that is so ultra-cool, it won’t matter what others are doing. Like, for example, the iPad.

The rivals are lining up: Samsung has unveiled an almost equally gorgeous Galaxy Tab; RIM has segments of the market salivating for the BlackBerry PlayBook; Toshiba CEO Masaaki Osumi has had his “one more thing” moment with his own tablet prototype.  Asus, who reinvented the netbook almost single-handedly, also want to play – and work; they offer a keyboard dock on their upcoming Eee Pad.

Meanwhile, at the low end of the market, Netbooks have stormed the market, giving manufacturers a new lease on life, and heralding the death of the traditional desktop PC.
Ironically, this explosion in low-cost, low-featured laptops comes several years after the failure of the first iteration of such devices aimed at the developing world and the poor. For as long as it was seen as an act of charity, the low-cost devices like the OLPC (one Laptop per Child) achieved no market traction. Little wonder: they used over-simplified operating systems and programs, second-hand connectivity, and little upgrade path for either technology or experience.

The Netbook, on the other hand, is a recognisable component of the formal and commercial world of operating systems, devices and technology roadmaps. It is slow, it has low specs, and it is no way for a busy information worker to operate. But it fills a vast gap in the market, and even creates a new market.

Early indications are that the iPad may be cannibalising the laptop market, but is not having much effect on Netbooks. It is still too early to measure true impact, but both devices point to a near future that is very different from the one dominated by desktop behemoths.

For one thing, the computer user of tomorrow will be unable to cope without a touchscreen, while yesterday’s workforce relics will still be heavily dependent on keyboards. So, many devices with touchscreens and keyboards.

For another, the computer user of tomorrow will not tolerate a device that needs a second device to allow it to work. Out with the Apple closed garden. It will maybe not be quite “Return from Planet Jobs”, but the tablet of tomorrow will be truly portable and not tethered to walled-in ways of thinking.

Thirdly, the concept of downloading or installing massive computer programs will be dead, as the empire of the app takes over. Almost every activity on a computer will be conducted via a streamlined app, and every computer will contain a library of apps, and even app templates that allow you to create your own personally-tailored apps on the fly.

Fourth, multiple paths to the data cloud will be built into all these devices. A choice between 4G and WiFi, or a premium price for a combo? How quaint! A chip or device that can’t handle all major wireless connectivity options as standard will be an object of ridicule.

What will this device look like? Well, what would you like it to look like? With viable screen sizes ranging anywhere from 3.5” to 28”, it’s no longer a question of what someone says should be good for you, but what feels right to you personally. It’s a world of competition, choice and instant gratification out there, and that will drive the future of the computer.
The astonishing speed with which every major manufacturer has been able to rush out a tablet prototype – and the eagerness with which the market laps it all up – tells us that everyone has been ready and anxious for the arrival of the computer of the future.

The iPad is not yet that future, but it sure is a powerful signpost.
·         Arthur Goldstuck tested an iPad supplied by Have2Have (http://www.have2have.co.za/). Their prices range from around R6 000 for the 16GB WiFi version to R9600 for the 64GB WiFi & 3G model.

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