Second desktop: How Apple can convince me to buy iPad

David Braue
3 February, 2010
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What an ungrateful bunch we (the collective Internet) are. After months of rampant speculation, millions of column-pixels wasted expounding on the virtues of the then-illusory Apple tablet, Steve Jobs brings the thing to life and half the Internet is complaining that it doesn’t have Flash or USB ports or a 17-inch screen or any of a dozen other notebook features that people somehow expected would be built into this device.

Get over it, whingers: if you want those features, Apple sells a range of quite capable notebooks that do those things and more. Apple may have brought out the iPad in response to the netbook trend trimming the cost of notebooks, but that doesn’t mean it was ever meant to be specced like a netbook.

Good: now that the armchair experts have all marched off in a huff, let’s talk about what the iPad actually is. And that’s an easy (and short) conversation: it is a seemingly gorgeous device for consuming content and running the iPhone applications we know and love. It is Apple TV with a built-in (albeit smaller) TV; an iPhone without a camera, or a phone; it is a great way to read, watch, and listen to all sorts of media while providing enough horsepower to allow developers to do some really cool stuff.

As I argued even before the device came out, the biggest obstacle the iPad faces isn’t the haters: they will eventually run out of steam and join the queue with credit cards in hand like the rest of us. The real success or failure of the iPad will come from Apple’s ability to build a robust content ecosystem that somehow manages to break through the invisible US-only licensing barrier – or its putative role as an e-book reader will become moot and it will indeed be nothing more than a bigger iPhone.

This time around, however, the publishers aren’t going to be taken by surprise: they’re already flexing their muscle, to Amazon’s chagrin, and Apple shouldn’t expect an easy ride – especially since actual sales of the iPad are still a big question mark.

The popularity of Apple’s iPod helped Steve Jobs get the record companies in line, but it’s not guaranteed that he can do it exactly the same this time: back when the iPod was introduced, people were already downloading and listening to MP3s in their thousands. Offering a way to monetise and distribute their music through iTunes was like offering water to a man crawling through the desert – but this time around, book publishers have the weight of inertia on their side. I’m sure some people are distributing pirated copies of books online, but the lack of a suitable device (Kindle aside) has made the practice far less popular than distribution of music online.

Expect a lot of toe-dipping by content providers – even those announced at the launch, who are by all accounts only exploring the market in the US first. Expect me, and millions of others, to hold onto their hard-earned until they’re convinced the iPad offers enough value to be worth a nearly four-digit (in Australia) price tag and/or a two-year contract with your local carrier.

In the meantime, Apple should be looking for as many ways as it can to convince people they need an iPad in their home.

Here’s how Apple could convince me to get one into my home: give it a way to be useful when I’m not reading books or fingerpainting on it. This thing isn’t cheap, and I’d like to think it has usefulness right through the day. Sure, Jobs described the unit as doubling as a photo frame when it’s in Apple’s strangely portrait-only keyboard stand. And we’re sure to see a clock-cum-weather forecasting app to run in standby mode.

Those are cute, but here’s an even better idea: allow the iPad to double as a second monitor while it’s in the dock.

If you’ve never plugged a second monitor into your iMac, you’re missing out. It doesn’t have to be big, but having a second screen onto which you can drag and drop applications, adds a whole new element to everyday computing. Put your email inbox on the screen and you never miss a message. Load your Twitter client onto the second desktop, and you can follow your tweetstream without interrupting your work. Edit a movie in iMovie, and the program automatically moves the preview window to your second screen. Edit a presentation in Keynote or PowerPoint, and you can run through it in full-screen mode on the second monitor.

It’s true, folks: a second screen can be a major productivity enhancer. And allowing the iPad to act as a second Mac OS X desktop when plugged into its dock would give people another major reason to buy it – without compromising its basic design principles.

Of course, it would require a stand that allows rotating the iPad into landscape orientation: squeezing a landscape desktop onto a portrait-oriented device is an imprecise science that works fine for email and Twitter, but requires a heck of a lot of letterboxing for movies and presentations.

Anyways, if I knew the iPad would double as a gorgeous second screen that I could pick up and take with me whenever I wanted – well, I would place my order tomorrow. Because that way, even if it takes months for Aussie publishers to get on the e-book bandwagon, the iPad would be adding value to my daily life from the moment I plugged it in.

Apple has two months until the iPad hits the shelves, and I bet this feature could be implemented in software quite easily. Using the existing hardware. So, why not?

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