Be grateful for what’s not on the iPad

Marco Tabini
3 February, 2010
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As with every new release from Apple—whether real or imagined—punditry is rampant over what the iPad has to offer and how it spells the end of e-book readers, netbooks, or Apple itself (depending on who you ask).

If nothing else, the current uproar shows that the neither the IT or business “expert” community has learned anything from the launch of the iPhone—and that there are still a large number of people who do not (or perhaps cannot) understand how Apple operates.

Just as when the iPhone was first announced, everyone is both extremely excited by the iPad’s possibilities and disappointed by the lack of at least one feature that they were expecting it to have. In the case of at least two—handwriting recognition and a full-fledged version of OS X—I contend that Apple’s move is a deliberate choice for the iPad’s future.

An obsession with perfection. Apple is not concerned with functionality that cannot offer a user experience short of perfection. I dare anybody who has actually attempted to use handwriting recognition to claim that it works flawlessly—or, for that matter, that it works consistently enough to make use of it in anything other than a contrived setting.

The truth is that handwriting recognition is, at best, a hit-and-miss affair that requires significant training on the user’s part in order to be serviceable. In other words, to make it work, you have to deprive it of the very thing that makes it practical: instead of using your own handwriting, you have to learn to use a stylised format that is both cumbersome and inefficient.

Apple has clearly researched this technology (in the Newton and OS X’s Inkwell feature) and discarded it in favour of multitouch, a technology that it could perfect to the point where it “just works.” It isn’t until you try an iPhone that you realise that, by comparison, the personal entertainment systems that have found their way into many airliners seem to have been designed for passengers that don’t mind bruises on their fingertips. If touchscreens were cars, the vast majority of touch-based applications out there would be like brakes that work most of the time—eventually effective, but not good enough for daily use (or survival).

Right tool and right job. The same concept applies to the choice of an iPhone OS-based system over a Mac OS-based system. Setting aside, for the moment, the fact that the iPad uses a processor that is very different from the Intel chips that power today’s Mac line, the version of OS X that is bundled with Macs is simply not designed to work with a device like the iPad. Mac applications are built on a completely different set of assumptions from iPhone applications.

For example, the accuracy and pointer size of a mouse makes it possible to easy distinguish targets (such as buttons) that might be both small and very close to each other; if you are ham-fingered like me, doing the same using a multitouch interface is unlikely to end well for either your fingers or your devices.

iPhone OS, on the other hand, is built with exactly the right type of physical user interface in mind. In fact, as the iPhone itself shows, something as seemingly far-fetched as an on-screen virtual keyboard can work really well when it’s implemented properly. When it isn’t—either because of mislaid priorities or technological limitations—it can be an excruciating exercise in frustration.

“Insanely great” The majority of anti-Apple pundits seem to ascribe practically every technological decision behind the company’s products to an almost pathological desire for control. Undoubtedly, the good folks from Cupertino are not immune from wanting to dominate every little detail of the appliances they create, but that’s a far cry from imagining Steve Jobs sitting in a darkened room, chewing on a cigar while he cackles maniacally over his plans for world conquest. The kind of control that Apple wants to exert on its products is, in no small part, due to the fact that it is the only way to ensure that they are as good as they can be.

If you feel betrayed by the iPad, whatever the reason, you are probably not alone, but—perhaps ironically—you should be thankful for the things that did not make it in the device. Where manufacturers have traditionally tried to cram as much functionality as possible in their products, Apple’s innovation is in including only what can make its creations “insanely great.”

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