getting to know the iPad

iPad 1-2.jpg

I have been running an experiment for the eleven weeks or so since the iPad launched. Each weekend I spend time going through directories hunting for apps that begin to expose native attributes of the device. My assumption is that the iPad opens up a new form of computing and we will see apps that are created specifically for this medium. Watching these videos of a two and a half year old and a 99 year old using the device for the first time offers a glimpse of its potential. Ease of introduction and interaction are the key points of distinction. I havent seen a full sized computing device that requires so little context or introduction.

When the iPad first came out much of what was published was on either end of a spectrum of opinion.  On one were the bleary eyed evangelists who considered it game changing and on the other people who were uninterested or unimpressed.    I think invariably the people who found it wanting were expecting to port their existing workflows to the device.   They were asking to do “what I do on my PC” on the iPad.  These people were frustrated and disappointed.   They assumed this was another form of PC, with some modifications but that it represented a transition similar to desktop to laptop.   Take this post from TechCrunch: “Why I’m Craigslisting My iPads” — three of the four reasons the author lists for dumping his iPad are about his disppointment that the iPad isnt a replacement for his laptop or desktop.     But in the comments section of the post an interesting conversation emerges: what if this device’s potential is different? Just like video has transformed the way our culture interacts with images, what if gesture based computing has the potential to transform the way we use, create, and express ourselves.

The iPad is the first full sized computing device with wide scale adoption with:

  • Hardware and software that requires little to no context or learning
  • An input screen large enough to manipulate (touch and type) with both hands
  • A gesture based interface that is so immersive, and personal that it verges on intimate
  • Hardware with battery and heat management that, simply, doesn’t suck
  • An application metaphor that is well suited to immersive, chunky, experiences. As @dbennahum says: “The ipad is the first innovation in digital media that has lengthened the basic unit of digital media”
  • A tightly coupled, well developed and highly controlled app development environment

For some people these attributes sum up to the promise that this will be the “consumption” device that re-kindles print and protects IP based video.   That may occur but for me that isnt the potential. The iPad is a connected computing device that extends human gestures. If you step back from the noise and hype, after almost 15 years of web experience, we know a few things. Connected / networked devices have consistently generated use cases that center around communication and social participation vs. passive consumption. Connecting devices to a network isnt just a more efficient means of distribution it opens up new paths of participation and creation.  The very term consumption maps to a world and a set of assumptions that I think is antithetical to the medium (for more on this see Jerry Michalski quote on the Cluetrain). I believe the combination of the interface on the iPad and the entry level experience I outlined above is sufficiently intuitive that this device and its applications has the potential to become an extension of us and transform computing similar to how the mouse did 45 years ago.

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Douglas Engelbart and his mouse changed everything.  Similar to the mouse the multitouch interface lets you navigate the surface of the computer.   But there is a key difference between this gesture based interface and the mouse.  The mouse is separate from the working surface, connected to the body but separate from the actual place of interaction. With the iPad gestures happen on the surface that you are creating on.  I have this general theory that when you narrow the gap between the surface that you “create on” and the surface that you “read on” you change the ratio of readers to writers and proportionally you reduce consumption as we used to know it and increase participation.  Some examples.  Images — still and video — where the tool you use to capture is increasingly the tool you use to view and edit.    Remember the analog experience — shoot a roll of film on one media type (coated celluloid) and then develop / display on another (paper). The gap here was large.  Digital cameras started to close the gap by eliminating the development process — by recording on a digital medium that permitted the direct transfer of that to a display and editing device (the PC).   The incorporation of display screens on cameras shrunk the gap further.  Now we are closing the gap even further. Embedding cheap cameras every display screen so that what you see also is what you record and display screen into the front of cameras.    With each closing of the gap between between production and display — participation increases.  Take the web itself.   The advent of wiki’s, blogging, comments and writable sites.   Or compare Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr vs. WordPress, Posterous and Typepad.   They are all CMS’s of one kind or another — but the experience is radically different in the first group.   Why?   Because they close that gap — specifically, they dont abstract the publishing into a dashboard.  You write on the surface you are reading on.

So, as a rule of thumb, when i see this gap narrow — I sit back and think.   And it is for this reason that I believe the gesture based interface on this device has the potential to open up a new form of computing.

Back to that experiment.   So while its has been less than 12 weeks since its launch I want to see if there are elements emerging on iPad apps that can tell us about what this new medium has to offer, what are the things we are going to be able to create on this device. My process is as follows:

(a) Hunt and peck for native apps. The discovery / search process is imperfect. I spend a fair amount of time using services like Appshopper, Appadvice and Position App. I also spend time in the limited app store that Apple offers (limited in that it sure is one crappy interface to browse, compare and find app’s).       I do find the “people who liked this also liked this” feature useful.   But hunt and peck is the apt term — its a tough discovery process — while Apple has done an awful lot to open up new forms of innovation they are simulateanously compromising others — the web isnt a good discovery platform for a lot of these app’s because many of them arent “visible” to basic web tools.   Any that is how I find things.

(b) I use the apps for a few days at least.   Given how visually seductive this platform is its important for me to use the app’s for a bit, let them settle into my workflow and interests and see if they mature or fade.      I then create a summary, of the app, on the iPad (might as well use the medium).   The app that I used to write many of the these summaries was Omnigafffle.

Six of the summaries are inserted below aggregated under some broad topic areas. I wanted to lay them out side by side on the table and see what I had learnt thus far.  I have some commentary around most sections and then some conclusions at the end.

1. This is the first post I did — summarizing the goal:

iPad 1-2.jpg

2. Extending the iPad

In the early days I was fascinated by camera A and camera B application — it lets you use your iPhone camera on your iPad, over WIFI. It’s one of those wow app’s — you show it to people and you can see their eyes open as they think of the possibilities this opens up. I think the possibility set that it opens up relate to the device as an extension of other connected devices. There a small handful of other applications I found that have done interesting things integrating iPads with other devices — ie: Scrabble, iBrainstorm and Airturn. Airturn is brilliant in it’s simplicity and well defined use – using a Bluetooth foot pedal to turn the iPad into a sheet music reader.   Apple might well have not put a camera on v1 of the iPad for commercial reasons (ie upgrade path) but the business restriction has opened up an opportunity.

CameraA/B is a good example of how those design choices are driving innovation. One of the first pictures I did was a requisite recursive image.

3. Take me back …

The only physical navigation on the device is a home button, like the iPhone no back button. I wish there was a back button. I find myself using the home button time and time again to go back when im in an application. I love how conservative Apple is with its hardware controls but a back button is missing — its one of the great navigational tools that the browser brought us, I really want one on this device.

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4. Jump on in …

There are a lot of interesting immersive app’s that are beginning to pop up on the iPad. These are good examples of the kind of experiences that are emerging:

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This is another immersive application — the popular Osmos HD. I said at the outset that I avoided gaming app’s and this and the coaster are games. Its the immersive navigation that i want to emphasize — today, there aren’t many better ways to explore this than app’s like these. Both of them use the high resolution display, the multitouch interface and the accelerometer to give you a visceral sense of the possibilities.

5. Writing …

I want to write on the iPad, write with my hand. I tried getting a pen but the experience was disappointing. The mutitouch surface is designed for input from a finger — the pens simulates a finger. If you want to draw with a pen or have large fingers then a pen like this works but it doesn’t work to actually write on the device. There also isn’t an application that lets you scale down words you have written with your finger, or at least i havent found one.  But you you can type!

I have also used a wireless keyboard — I typed most of this post using a keyboard, it works well.

6. Reading, readers and browsing …

There are a whole collection of reading related experiences that are coming out for the iPad, its one of the most active areas of development.     My journey began with the book app’s on the device. iBooks, the Kindle app and then a handful of dedicated reading app’s (ie comic book app’s) I don’t have much to say about any of these experiences since they all pretty much use the device as a display to read on.   They all work well, and the display is better on my eyes than I expected. I liked the Kindle, e-ink display, a lot but unless you are reading outside, in full sun, the iPad display works very well. My favorite reading app is the Kindle app.    The reading surface is clean and immersive.   Navigation is simple and I love the “social highlight” feature. You can see it in the image below. Whilst you are reading there are sections with a light, dotted, underline — touch it and it tells you x number of people have highlighted this section as well as you. I love stuff like this — a meaningful social gesture displayed with minimal UI.

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A few weeks after the launch I started using reader app’s.   I define this category as app’s that offer a reading experience into either a social network (twitter, facebook), a selection of feeds (RSS), or a scrapped version of web sites.  Some people are calling these clients  — for me a client allows you to publish, these are readers of one kind and another.    Skygrid was one of the first I used.    Then came Pulse, GoodReader, Apollo and last week Flipboard.   Most of these readers offer simple, fluid interfaces into the real time streams.   Yet the degree to which we have turned the web into a mess is painfully evident in these applications. Take a look at the screen shots of web pages displayed on these applications. The highlight is mine but the page is a mess.    Less than 15% of the pixels on the first page below were actually written by the author.

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It’s remarkable how the human brain can block out a visual experience in one context (web browser) but when its recontextualized into another experience (iPad) the insanity of the experience is clear. We have slow boiled so many web sites that we have turned the web into a mass of branding, redundant navigation and advertising.   And some wonder why value of these ad’s keeps falling.    As the number of devices that access the internet increases the possibilities forking the web, as Doc Searls calls it, increases. Remember pointcast, sidewiki, Google News, Digg bar — same questions.   Something has to give here — surfing the web works very well on the iPad, the surfing works, the problem is that its the web sites that dont.

The issues embedded in these readers stretch back to the beginning of the web — all the way back to the moment that HTML and then RSS formed a layer, a standard, for the abstraction of underlying data vs. its representation.   Regardless of your view of the touch based interface its undeniable that the iPad represents a meaningful shift in how you can view information.    Match that with the insanity of how many web sites look today and you have a rich opportunity for innovation.

Users, publishers, advertisers, browsers, aggregators, widget makers — pretty much everyone is going to try to address this issue.    Some of these reader app’s use the criteria that RSS established (excerpt or full text) to determine whether to re-contextualize the entire page or just a snippet of it.    Some of them just scrap the entire web page and then some of them are emerging as potentially powerful middleware tools.    PressedPad is installed on this blog — its somewhere between a wordpress plugin and a theme ( note to users: install it as a plugin).   PressedPad  gives me some basic controls re: how to display and manage the words on this site so that they are optimized for the iPad.   Similar to WPtouch — it does a great job of addressing this issue by passing control over to the site creator.   This approach makes sense but it will take time to scale.  In the short term we are going to see a lot of false starts here.  But ultimately the reading experience will get better because of this tension and evolution both on the iPad and the web.   And so will monetization.  Now that the inanity of what we have done is been laid bare we have to fix it.

Back to the app’s themselves.   Of all these reader app’s the Flipboard is the most innovative.  I’m still getting used to the experience – there is a lot to think about here.   There is much that I like about the Flipboard – its visually arresting for a start, beautifully laid out and stunning.   Take the image below — some app’s are just stop you in their tracks with their ability to show off the visual capabilities of the device, Flipboard is certainly one of these.

Visuals aside the thing that I find interesting is Flipboard’s approach to Twitter and Facebook.  It turns Twitter and Facebook into a well formatted reading experience — it takes a dynamic real time stream and re-prints it as if its a magazine. I like the application of Tweets as headlines. I have often thought about Twitter’s 140 character length as headline publishing. Flipboard takes this literally — using the Tweet as the headline with exerts of the content displayed under the headline.   The Facebook stream works less well.   Facebook isnt a news stream, its more of a social stream — and I find the Flipboard randomly drops me into the Facebook at a level that im not interested in. I flip pages and I find myself browsing personal pictures from someone I barely know — something that i would have skipped by on Facebook.com.

But it is this representation of a stream as a magazine that I struggle with the most. The metaphor is overwrought in my mind.  I hear the theoretical arguments that Scoble makes re: layout but they dont translate for me in practice.   The stream of data coming from Twitter and Facebook isnt a magazine — formatting it as such places it into a context that doesnt fit particularly well and certainly doesnt scale well (from a usage perspective).  Because it looks like a magazine and feels like one — I tend to read it like one, and this content isn’t meant to be used like a magazine. The presentation feels too finished, I have written before about the need for unfinished media and how it opens the door for participation.   This feels like it closes that door – it allows too narrow an entry path for interaction.     And then finally what they are trying to do is technically hard.   It’s hard to algorithmically determine which text should be large vs. small, where to place emphasis — just like its hard to algorithmically de-dup multiple streams, or to successfully display the images that correspond to the title.

These are my initial Flip thoughts.  I am facinated by this category and the conversations Pulse, Flip and others have started.   The innovation here is just getting going and I cant wait to see what comes next.

Browsers.   I’m using Life Browser a lot and liking it.   The Queue feature is great — enable the Q button and any links you click on the page get “queued up” behind in a stack.  Im interested to see things like candy tabs on Firefox come to the iPad.

Some conclusions …

1. Its early days.

There wasnt a single application that I found that really stood out and remained interesting after a few weeks of use.  Many were recast versions of iPhone applications. I did find things that are edging in the direction of truly native – and most of those I outlined above.  This conclusion isn’t surprising.  It’s very hard to re-conceptualize interfaces and experiences. The launch of the magic trackpad demonstrates how committed Apple is to this interface.  If this is truly a new form three months is barely a teaser — we have much to do and much to learn here.   And in the past few weeks the pace of launches of interesting applications has started to pickup significantly.   Im spending more time in drawing app’s and in some quasi enterprise app’s.    I cant wait to see what the next 6 months brings.

2. The visual dominates, gesture emerging.

Visually arresting applications are the things that pop today.   Many of them are just beautiful to look at.   The pond is lovely — have you been struck by the book shelf on iBooks, I was — what about the roller coaster, so are many of the games, so is Flipboard.   But I suspect much of what im responding to is the quality of the screen and the images been displayed ie: the candy not the sustenance.   Many of the app’s that had an initial wow factor im now deleted.    Visual graphics need to be part of the quality and essence of the experience not just eye candy.   And the visual needs to be integrated into the gestural.   Maybe artists will take it accross this threshold — I was sorry that the Seven on Seven event happened right around the launch, I hope that for the next one some artists will opt to produce something on the iPad.   Gesture based interfaces are emerging — slowly but they are coming.   I used Pressedpad to “iPad”ize this blog and the experience works well(ish) — the focus is simply on making the navigation gesture applicable.   But note even here — when I showed this iPad enabled blog to @wesissman he mailed me “looks amazing – i cant figure out how to actually read the posts – but looks great”.     We are in that early part of the experience of a new device where the visual is so astounding we in a sense need to get over it in order to figure out how we can make it useful.

3. Its a social device.

It’s a social device yet many of the applications are single user and not thinking through the connected aspects of the device.    While the device is highly personal it’s also a social device, it caters very well to multi users and multi devices.   I havent figured out why this is so but for some reason the iPad has both a highly personal inimate feel — yet its social representation is far less personal.   Try this out — leave an iPad lying around in a conference room people will feel very comfortable using it.   In the first few weeks it was fair to say that everyone simply wants to try one — but the behaviour persists.  In the same way I have brought an iPad to meetings and passed it around the table, its a very sharable social device.    In this mix of personal and not — single user and multi user/multi device is, I believe, a trove of opportunity for innovation.  And then add connectivity to this mix.    This device is designed as a connected device (connected to both other devices and connected to the network) — it will open up paths of connected innovation we can only imagine today.

4. Enterprise is a coming

I have been struck by how popular VPN and other virtualization app’s are.   It suggests a lot of people are starting to use the iPad in the enterprise.   I heard some numbers that suggested that more than 15% of the iPads sold are linked to corp accounts.     The use cases are a little outside of what i know and think about but I suspect there is a lot that will emerge here.   The device requires very little IT overhead — the total cost of ownership of these devices has to be a fraction of a normal PC.

So here are an initial set of thoughts about the iPad.   I’m interested to hear what you think.    One of the other incidental properties of the iPad is its initial lack of focus.  The iPhone is in its first instance a phone, the kindle is a book reader. — the iPad is an open tablet, for us to create on.   I believe there is much to do here — the tablet has been the next great form factor for a long time now, but I think its finally arrived.   We now have to build the experiences to suit the device.

  • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

    awesome. thx. the gesture economy is here.

  • dshen

    Love this post! But you didn't seem to try many games. I would try Plants vs. Zombies. It's one of the best out there and so suited to pointing/touching rather than other types of interaction. Some of the driving games are nice because they allow you to steer via tilting the device. If you try games, please post on your experience!

  • http://ouriel.typepad.com OurielOhayon

    great insights. i still find the iPad hard as an interface to provide text input. i believe the keyboard could be much improved (by splitting it in 2 parts for eg so both hands can access their respective part without a painful effort)

    The app store is definitely also lacking some better browsing and discovery experience. But overall this device is a turning point in our industry and i can t wait for the next iteration of the iPad, including a front and back camera this time. As well as the much expected os 4.0 !

    Ouriel Ohayon
    http://appsfire.com

  • http://brian.magierski.com bmagierski

    Great post. GetJar just release a survey it did and confirms your #4 on Enterprise is coming (http://bit.ly/bB5PqP). Among findings, 84% of enterprises will support personal iPads and 80% of enterprises will purchase iPads. The iPad has great potential for next generation apps in the enterprise.

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  • http://danreich.com danreich

    Makes you wonder if in 50 or 100 years from now, the English language (or any language for that matter) will evolve to accommodate easier, more concise, words and sentences (e.g. Laugh out Loud vs. LOL, In My Honest Opinion vs. IMHO). Words and sentences that will fuel communications over these new, gesture-based devices.

    In other words…

    Grt pst n I look frwd 2 the futre of this new form of cmputing.

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    I've already got something like the MaxiPad. It runs the same apps, except the device I have is smaller, more convenient, has a camera and makes phone calls. It's the iPhone. Still doesn't do Flash though.

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    It is a great device, but I cannot get used to having to write with my fingers.