Unfair iPad complaints

I’ve been thinking a lot about the iPad and considering whether to buy one myself. In reading some of the reviews and responses, I’ve encountered a set of complaints, many of which I don’t think are entirely fair, and I wanted to share my thoughts.

No Flash support

The iPad does not support Adobe Flash, which seems to upset a lot of people.  From my standpoint the fact that Flash has become so ubiquitous is improper and even scary.  Flash is a bad thing (unstable, insecure, slow resource hog), and if Apple had to choose to include Flash or not include Flash, one or the other, I’d prefer that they didn’t.  I’m also glad they don’t have Silverlight, and I don’t see much of a difference.

In my view, these technologies are good for approximately 2 things: games and video.  With the advent of HTML 5, I hope all sites will be moving away from using Flash for video.  I know there are people who will argue with this, but it’s not really the topic I want to address here.  Flash games: I can live without them.  Flash ads: I’d like to actively block them.

Multitasking

I’ve read a lot of people complaining that iPhone OS is technologically backward because it doesn’t support multitasking.  In truth, it already supports multitasking, it just limits the access 3rd party developers have to that capability.  There are a couple of good reasons for this.  First, no one has built a good enough UI (User Interface) into managing background applications.  Windows Mobile and Android based phones both get a lot of user complaints that boil down to having too many applications running in the background without a clear UI for seeing what’s running or a clear UI for closing them.

Second, most applications don’t have a lot of need for running in the background in a system like this.  For example, when you’re reading an ebook, it takes up the whole screen.  When your writing a note in the “Notes” application, it takes up the whole screen.  You aren’t split-screening, doing both a the same time, the way you would on a computer.  There’s nothing about these programs that needs to keep running– like when you leave the ebook reader, there’s no benefit to leaving it running in the background, using up system resources, rendering an invisible book.

Therefore, what you really need are (a) for programs to be able to save their state when quitting so that you don’t lose data; and (b) a good notification system for the programs that need it.  Essentially, I don’t need my full mail application and my full IM application and my full phone application all running in the background on my iPhone all the time.  I need to get an appropriate alert when I receive a phonecall or an email or an IM.

No ports/expandability

I’ve read some complaints about the iPad not having built-in card readers, USB ports, or an audio line-in.  I think there are probably many reasons for this, including keeping the size/weight down and keeping the price low.  However, I think some of the reason that the iPad lacks expandability is that Apple is managing user expectations.  If you put a USB port on the iPad, then people are going to expect that they can plug in their peripherals and have them work.

This presents some problems.  First, it means that Apple has to develop a large base of drivers for all these devices.  When you plug something into USB on your computer and it works, it’s not magic; there are loads and loads of various pieces of software sitting around on your computer on the off chance that you plug in a piece of hardware that uses that software.  Unless Apple puts all that software on the iPad then your USB devices won’t work anyway.  Then we’d be hearing complaints like, “Why did Apple put a USB port on this thing if I can’t use any of my USB peripherals?”

So why doesn’t Apple simply include all of the necessary software and drivers to support various USB peripherals?  Well… then you’re opening a whole other can of worms.  Let’s say Apple put a USB port on the iPad and I plug in one of the simplest and most common USB peripherals: a mouse.  Most users would expect that a mouse cursor would then appear, and they could use a mouse instead of the touchscreen capabilities.  However, the UI isn’t designed to be operated by a mouse; everything is big and spaced far apart.  Apple specifically avoiding replicating the mouse-driven interface on this device, and I suspect as a result, it wouldn’t be a terribly fun device to navigate by mouse.  So that diminishes the user experience. Even worse, allowing people to use a mouse with the iPad would encourage developers to create mouse-driven interfaces, which would in turn make for a poor experience when using the touchscreen.  So then you end up with a split between apps designed to be used with the touch screen and apps designed for the mouse.  Confusing.  Apple doesn’t like “confusing”.

Beyond that, you’d have extra hard drive space taken up by the mouse drivers and any associated software (e.g. calibration software), and you’d lose any CPU or battery power that got devoted to running those drivers.  Plus, the mouse would draw power from the USB port, which would drain battery life.  One of the key things that Apple seems to be very proud of is the iPad’s battery life: 10 hours of watching video; 1 month standby time.  They achieve this by using a low-power processor and carefully managing the resources, which probably means loading no more drivers than are necessary, not running applications in the background except when necessary, and not using any powered ports.

So for putting an extra port on the iPad (which would cost a little extra per unit, possibly require extra engineering of the case), you get almost no extra functionality and decreased battery life.  There actually is a USB connector built-in to the iPod docking connector, but the dock connector includes other things too (e.g. audio/video out, remote control support).  Plus the dock connector is skinner and is a little less likely to break anything if you yank on it, since it’s not as deep. Bluetooth devices, on the other hand, have their own power sources.  By forcing peripherals to use the dock connector, it ensures that people will only be trying to plug in devices that are designed specifically for iPhones/iPads.

Managing expectations

I think how you see the iPad of this depends on your expectations. If you’re expecting the iPad to be a full computer in tablet form, then I think you’ll end up being disappointed. I don’t think Apple is even aiming for it to be a full computer. It’s more like a device, like an iPod or an Apple TV. Or think of it like an XBox. Would you complain that you can’t do multitasking on your XBox? That you can’t play a video game and type a term paper on your XBox at the same time?

Essentially, the iPad isn’t meant to replace your computer. You know how you used to carry around a disc-man and a bunch of CDs, and that got replaced by an iPod? Well now the iPad is replacing your books and your moleskin notebooks, but also maybe your TV, iPod, and PDA. Not a bad accomplishment, if it pulls it off effectively.