A Blank Canvas: Aussie developers’ views on the iPad

Xavier Verhoeven
9 April, 2010
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There’s a plethora of information coming out of the US following the iPad’s launch, but given that the Australian release is still a few weeks away at best, I’ve tracked down some Aussies who should be most familiar with the device – app developers.

I spoke to these guys, who are behind some of the most popular Australian iPhone apps, to find out what to expect from them on the iPad (some of which can be seen here) and what they expect from the iPad in return. Here’s what they have to say:

What have been the major challenges in developing iPad apps?

“We’ve had to use our imaginations a lot!” says Emiliano Molina from Bitolithic.

Not having an actual iPad to develop on was clearly the biggest challenge for all the developers. As with the iPhone, there is an iPad emulator (bundled with the iPad developer tools) that shows how an app will look and work. But without multitouch abilities or accelerometer information, and little guidance on speed of the device, this is a rough estimation at best.

Russell Ivanovic from ShiftyJelly says his team had to make a “paper cut out” of an iPad just to imagine what it would feel like to hold. This 10in tablet is clearly a very different beast to the iPhone, despite being based on the same operating system.

The App Store approval process was another big hurdle: Matthew Lesh from Syncode says they quickly became scared of what would and wouldn’t work and what would be allowed onto the store. “Until we get our hands on a device, we’re at the mercy of Apple’s review team to tell us if our app works,” he says.

The review process has often come under fire for lack of transparency, as developers rarely have any indication of when their app will be approved, or why it gets knocked back in some cases. But the added anguish of not being able to test your app properly before submitting it was clearly an issue for the early iPad apps.

Add the fact that Apple left it very late to announce a deadline for apps to be considered for launch availability, and you can see that developers have been working hard to get their apps ready.

“Apple didn’t announce a deadline for iPad apps until a week before they were due, and this was a week before we guessed they would be due,” Ivanovic says. In his words, “many late nights ensued”.

Do any features make it easier to develop for the iPad?

“The larger canvas definitely gives you a lot of flexibility,” says Graham Clarke of Glasshouse Apps.

Lesh adds: “Having the space to do as you wish instead of being limited by a small screen is a massive advantage.”

Similarly, Ivanovic notes the appeal of the screen size: “There are five times as many pixels on the iPad than the iPhone … it makes all our iPhone apps seem ‘cramped’ in comparison.”

The increased screen real estate is the most obvious feature of the iPad, and that means developers can do a lot with building an application. But, according to Ivanovic, “You need a lot more design and implementation effort than for an iPhone app”, and from a look at the prices of many iPad apps this has translated to apps being more expensive than their iPhone counterparts.

Looking further at the few thousand iPad apps already available, it’s clear developers have embraced the opportunities of the bigger screen – most apps now have brand new menu interfaces, split-screen views, popup menus, and all manner of things exclusive to the iPad OS.

Another feature of the iPad is its ability to be useable no matter which way it’s held. But, like the screen size, this too just seemed to add to the challenge of iPad development. Marc Edwards from Bjango notes that this was one of the “biggest challenges” in planning and designing its apps.

What are your hopes for the iPad?

Based on first-day figures, the iPad has already outsold the original iPhone with 300,000 sold in less than 24 hours. And that’s just in the US. The rest of the world is eagerly awaiting a global release – so what do developers with a vested interest in the platform hope for its future? Well, they’re unanimous that it has a good chance at completely changing the way we use computers.

“iPad represents how Apple would build the Mac in 2010, given a blank slate,” Edwards says. “It’s a demonstration of where Apple sees the future of computing – less focus on how things are bolted together and more focus on achieving specific tasks.”

Molina notes that the “biggest surprise to come out of the iPad announcement was the number of non-technical people that want one”. Indeed, it seems the iPad truly is shaping up to be a computer for the people out there who are still uncomfortable with a keyboard and mouse – and believe me, there are more of those people out there than you might realise. Clarke even thinks multitouch will expand to bigger screens and “may end up replacing the mouse in many situations”.

“All my technophobe relatives want one, and that hints to me that this could be a revolution in computing,” Ivanovic says.

“Every tech person that says they don’t want [an iPad] will end up buying two for their parents,” jokes Molina. And with all the media attention that the release has been getting, it looks like Apple is well and truly in the mainstream with the iPad.

Other than your own apps, what will make the iPad a killer product?

“I can only guess, but I can expect we’ll all be blown away by what it makes possible,” is Clarke’s answer. He was at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store in New York for the launch, so it’s pretty safe to assume he’s already blown away by the release. That means he’s also had a chance to try out the device, and if his recent blog post is anything to go by, it’s already a winner:

“Easily the most profound thing about the iPad is it’s OS and display size,” Clarke says. “It’s a new canvas for developers, and what excites you about it today will no doubt be different to what excites you about it in a week from now or a month from now or a year from now, as developers once again explore unchartered territories and create what was once impossible.”

There were a few mentions from the developers of the apps that Apple has up its sleeves that they’re excited to see. Ivanovic thinks Keynote and iBooks will be especially big as the touch interface makes a lot more sense than a keyboard and mouse. And I’d have to agree with Matthew Lesh, who says the productivity apps “seem to have potential” – in fact, I’d call that a massive understatement.

But it’s non-Apple apps that they’re really excited about.

“Third party apps will really take the platform to a new level that no other manufacturer can compete with,” Edwards says.

“It will be both the App store and how ambitious Apple wants to be that will set the iPad apart from other tablets entering the market,” adds Lesh, or as Molina predicts, all it will take is “whatever game PopCap is pushing”. Clearly, with 150,000 iPhone apps having taught developers the ropes for the platform, the scope for app development on the iPad is huge.

Maybe the iPad’s killer feature is already here, afterall.

Well, at least for those in the US and each of these developers (who are all now proud owners of some of the first iPads in Australia).

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