Amherst Bytes: A Tale of Two Tablets
By Ricardo Bilton '10, Staff Writer
During the State of the Union Address last week, President Barack Obama said that to save the American economy, jobs must be the number-one focus of the US government in 2010. As it happened, however, many were already focused on Steve Jobs and Apple’s newest offering as the iPad made its official and long-awaited debut.

To understand the significance of the iPad, it is worth looking back to how much speculation surrounded it even before it officially existed. The history of the iPad is a story not of one tablet, but two — the one everyone expected and the one everyone got. For years, rampant and invariably rabid speculation on the parts of journalists, bloggers and industry analysts constructed an image of an Apple tablet that they thought would, in one fell swoop, answer the world’s call for the perfect tablet computer. It was a trend unrivaled in scale by any other consumer product. Apple had taken the backseat on advertising, letting everyone else do the hype-mongering for them. As far back as 2003, Apple enthusiasts anticipated each successive Apple conference, desperately hoping for the unveiling of Apple’s prized and mysterious product. It didn’t happen; instead, Apple released the Macbook, the iPhone and multiple generations and iterations of the iPod. The iPad, it seemed, just didn’t exist.

Apple, of course, wasn’t new to the fine art of slate chiseling. The company’s first foray into the tablet market came in 1993 with the Newton Messagepad, a short-lived and inelegant line of personal digital assistants. The Newton, beloved by those brave enough to purchase it and shunned by those unwilling to take the plunge, was given the axe in February 1998 — not too long after Bill Clinton denied his infidelity and not too long before Viagra was approved for sale by the Food and Drug Administration, for comparison.

The notion then follows that Apple, hardly a novice to what makes a successful product, would understand and appreciate the demand for this new tablet of theirs and deliver it in the sort of poised and distinctly-Apple fashion people have come to expect from the company. Apple, many felt, undoubtedly learned from the mistakes of the Newton and would be determined not to repeat them — they know what they are doing. While many people accepted these views, little could explain the surprise that they felt in the wake of the actual iPad announcement.

Many have complained about the iPad, citing a lengthy list of blatant, subtle and arguably-intentional faults that the device features. But they all miss the point. The iPad, like most consumer devices, is designed with certain degree of engineered insufficiency: the company is a master of creating products that give you just enough to coerce you into buying their products but not enough to keep you satiated.

However, that might be giving them too much credit because the iPad does possess some indisputable faults. Its lack of support for Flash, for instance, while justifiable on the iPhone, is hardly tenable on a device designed to be used for long web-browsing sessions. Likewise, porting over the iPhone OS to the iPad might make it easier for iPhone application developers to transition to a new product, but stripping multi-tasking from a supposed personal computer is a bizarre design choice. By making the iPad so similar to the iPhone in this regard, Apple is only justifying the criticism that the iPad is just four iPhones duct-taped together. This, of course, is keeping in mind the fact that the iPad cannot make phone calls.

But Apple is saying something with the iPad, something more than the usual “we want more of your money.” IPad designer Jon Ive said that the iPad represents Apple’s vision of what is next for personal computing, and Apple is probably right. If 2009 was the year of the netbook, 2010 may be marked by a transition into computers as appliances. Like the iPhone and an increasing number of other devices, the iPad is tethered, which is a fancy way of saying that Apple controls what you can do with it. Contrast that with the personal computer, which is marked by its ability to be completely generative. Developers and users can create and install whatever applications they please for a computer, and the manufacturer will never get a cent from them. With the iPad, on the other hand, an application can only be sold to customers via the iTunes Store if Apple approves of its content. Moreover, and considerably more concerning, Apple can remotely access any iPad, allowing them to disable features and delete content without the device owner’s permission.

The reasons for these sort-of design decisions are twofold. On one hand, a company with complete control over what is offered on its devices has complete control over the profits. From a bottom-line perspective, this approach makes sense to Apple. On the other hand, the simple computer-as-appliance model of design puts the iPad on the same technological level as the toaster and toilet. It is suddenly a billion times easier to understand, and, if anything breaks, it’s a whole lot easier to fix it. The future, then, seems to be one of simplicity and control superseding customizability and user-generated content. It’s the approach your grandmother would most appreciate.

And it’s the approach that is sure to push the iPad into an entirely new category of computing devices. The iPad won’t kill the personal computer (or even the netbook), but it will carve out a profitable niche for itself. As faulty as it may be, the iPad represents something larger than itself — and Apple knows exactly what that is.

Issue 13, Submitted 2010-02-02 21:00:04