Point-Counterpoint: The innovation of Apple’s new iPad

Apple’s iPad was released last Saturday. Sales over the weekend may have reached 700,000 units. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor) Apple’s iPad was released last Saturday. Sales over the weekend may have reached 700,000 units. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor)
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You just might have heard about Apple’s newest device, the iPad. This device has polarized the high-tech industry, with people either loving it or hating it, and few standing in the middle ground. Now that the much-anticipated device has actually debuted, it is time to end the wild speculation that has filled the media for the last three months and consider the opposing viewpoints on the device and its impact on the tech market.

The major selling point of the iPad has been users’ ability to consume text content in new and innovative ways. After using the iPad, we came to the consensus that it does perform its role as a magazine- or book-replacement device very well. Magazine content, particularly the Popular Science application, has been re-rendered in a way that pushes the boundaries of the traditional magazine. In particular, articles are contiguous, rather than being shattered and cast about the pages, and while there are still some kinks to work out, the innovation is clear. Another great leap into the future comes from the Marvel Comics application, which displays comic books at the full resolution of the device, rather than limiting rendering to the resolution of the printer. In addition, the application allows the user to zoom in on a particular panel, enlarging it and allowing the reader to catch more detail and appreciate the hard work that goes into the art of a comic book.

As impressive as all of this is, there are, inevitably, drawbacks. The brightness of the screen may preclude reading for extended periods of time, but without the brightness the rendering of the Popular Science and Marvel Comics applications would be lost. The device is also very difficult to use outdoors for the same reasons. Thus, the iPad will not replace physical books or other e-reader devices. The design of the Popular Science and Marvel Comics applications is not anything that couldn’t be implemented using Flash or HTML5, but the iPad is bringing these new designs from concept into reality.

There are some things that the iPad has significantly improved. The Brushes application, initially produced for the iPhone, will be undeniably improved by the larger surface area of the iPad. Similarly, there is little question that casual games popularized by the iPhone will benefit from the increased screen size. However, this does not mean that existing iPhone applications will automatically be improved on the iPad. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The iPad allows existing applications to be used either in a mode that emulates the iPhone screen size or in a mode that expands the application to take up the entire screen. In the former mode, the applications seem shrunken and insufficient, and the iPad fails to live up the expectations of a new device. In the latter mode, the application becomes blocky and pixelated, stretched beyond its means to fill a role it was never meant to have.

For the full promise of gaming on the device to be reached, iPad games need to be designed with the larger screen in mind. Even then, there is no expectation that the iPad will replace full computer systems for the “hardcore” gaming crowd.

One of the great advantages that Apple continues to leverage in their product design is their willingness to make decisions that, though restricting for consumers, allow them to simplify the design of the product. For example, Apple continues to produce hand-held devices that are not user-serviceable. Like the iPod and iPhone, there is no easy way to change the battery in the iPad. In fact, if you go to the Apple Store and request a battery change, a “service” that will cost $100, they will not take your device into the back and change the battery — they will just hand you an entirely new device. Though many decry this as a great detriment to the long-term usefulness of the device, this policy allows Apple to pack their devices with more technology in less space. This gives Apple a competitive edge in a market that demands smaller and smaller devices but refuses to sacrifice functionality.

One restriction that should be lifted is the requirement to own an additional computer to use the device. After pulling an iPad out of the box, it will not do anything until it has been tethered to a computer with iTunes. Requiring an increasingly over-bloated iTunes to simply fill out a registration form is a fantastically stupid choice, destroying the possible market of people who could get by with an iPad as their primary computer. All Apple needs to do is update their software and add a registration form, requiring an iTunes account, to remove this barrier.

In summary, the iPad is an excellent device on its technical merits. It is also clear that the device will change the way we think about some print media. However, its impact on other markets is still unclear, even after launch day. The talk about the iPad continues to be about its potential and not about the difference it has made.