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Apple iPad: First impressions

imageThe iPhone was really something of a talking dog. It was so amazing that Apple had brought such functionality to something that was so omnipresent that it was relatively easy to forgive the cramped interface and incessant swiping that sometimes seemed required to get things done. In a form of geek noblesse oblige, advanced users accepted these limitations understanding that it was part of the platform’s overall gestalt that brought new users into the smartphone ecosystem.

But you’ll find less of that feeling of compromise with the iPad. Yes, technically the iPad is very similar to a large iPod touch. But it is also an unbound iPod touch – unbound by the constraints of screen size, limited battery life, cramped keyboard, and a user interface that lacks some of the efficiencly boosters Apple has now implemented.

As I noted in a recent Laptop Magazine article, I put the iPad closer to a notebook on the smartphone-notebook continuum in terms of functionality and usage scenarios. And yet, the iPad is not a netbook, nor do I think it aspires to be one even though at least some of the tasks — most notably, e-mail and Web access — can be managed pretty well on it. But a BlackBerry handles e-mail pretty well, too. Furthermore, I think it would be the wrong path for Apple to try to make the iPad more netbook-like; this would work to the detriment of the device experience and would of course risk cannibalizing Apple’s Mac business. So far, the lack of multitasking is even less of an issue on the iPad than on the iPhone as you’re far more likely to be engaged with the device as you use it, and there is less need to have geolocation apps running in the background. Lack of Flash is being addressed by video providers — perhaps even Hulu — working on their own iPad apps.

Typing on the iPad’s software-based keyboard is a better experience than I thought i twould be, at least with Apple’s somewhat awkward rubbery case that props the iPad up at an angle that is better suited to seeing the screen. As is the case with the iPhone, typing on a screen is less about efficiency and more about the psychological satisfaction and reassurnace of feeling as the keys descend, although we may likely evolve to lose that discomfort. In any case, one can certainly touch-type on the iPad, at least until one has to start switching among letters, numbers and symbols.

Of course, so much of the iPad story is — as is often the case with Apple products — as much about how it does what it does rather than just functionality. Engaging user interface touches such as being able to stretch out an albun in Photos or preview a page in iBooks — make for good demo fodder even if they will likely rarely be used. Speaking of iBooks, I’ve come away thinking the iPad is a stronger competitor to the Amazon Kindle than I originally thought. Even though Apple hasn’t done a lot of work with magazines, yet, those publications should shine on the device as do Marvel comixs Like the iPhone, the device holds its own in direct sunlight, and can of course be used in the dark without an attachment, unlike most e-paper-based e-readers. Video, though, is washed out outside.

As I’ve written, third-party apps will have a more profound impact on the iPad than they did on the iPhone, and the first batch are promising, although some are Internet-connected multimedia that, to Cory Doctorow’s point, feels like the CD-ROM freed of its physical form. That said, the iPad is represents the birth of a platform. I’ve enjoyed the novel play (if occasionally frustrating control) of games such as N.O.V.A. and the ability to pair iPod touches or iPhones as tile decks with the iPad to create one of the world’s most expensive Scrabble games should enable a number of multiplayer scenarios. While there have been plenty of devices with 10″ screens that have played video, there really hasn’t been a games platform quite like the iPad. I’m anticipating more games that allow multiple players to interact on its multitouch surface.

From the experience so far, it’s hard to see the iPad displacing anything.Yet, it makes itself usefuli in ways that you might not expect, in situations where it’s simply helpful to have another smart screen at your disposal. That means that, at this point, it’s a nice-to-have product. But very nice to have.