Apple says it sold about 25 million iPads in the first nine months of this… (Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty…)
I have tried — really tried — to fall in love with the iPad.
I've spent hours trying it out. Reading, browsing, gaming. Watching movies. I've trawled Apple's website for killer apps. Conferred with the blue-shirted geniuses at my local Apple store about the wonders of the tablet-enabled lifestyle.
I've checked out the favorite apps of my iPad-equipped friends, and tried to conjure every way I might use the iPad for health, happiness and profit.
But it's not happening.
There's no point pretending that there aren't millions of people who do, in fact, love the iPad. They can't all be self-deluding, so we can stipulate that for many, many people it's a marvelous device. Apple says it sold about 25 million units in the first nine months of this year. Throw in sales of wannabe iPads such as Amazon's Kindle Fire and Samsung's Galaxy Tab, and it sometimes seems as though pretty soon every atom in the universe will own its own tablet computer.
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But if you're one of the millions who woke up this Christmas morning feeling guilty that you didn't spring for an iPad for your family, or got one and can't figure out what all the excitement's about, or think the whole tablet computing craze is another case of consumers being goaded by slick advertising into buying something they don't need, don't be ashamed. If you can't tell what the pad is good for, you don't need it. I'm on your side.
Let's be clear that I'm not taking an anti-Apple position. On the contrary, I'm devoted to my Apple MacBook Air, which is the best computer I've ever owned. And I've sampled and spurned non-Apple tablets such as the Galaxy Tab and Kindle Fire.
I don't "hate the iPad," like the sizable cadre of bloggers given to proclaiming their distaste online. I'm merely indifferent to its supposed virtues, as I am to many other cultural phenomena I'm expected to find fascinating, like Ryan Seacrest and Pippa Middleton.
My biggest issues with the iPad fall into three categories: its poor screen resolution, its lack of a decent input mechanism and Apple's totalitarian approach to its App Store. We'll take them in order.
The iPad screen may be adequate for video or animated games, but it's nowhere near sharp enough for comfortable extended viewing of anything involving the printed word: books, magazines, websites. That's especially true at the less-than-arm's-length viewing distance for which the iPad is designed. My black-and-white Kindle e-reader may be worthless for Web browsing, but the sharpness of its print display leaves the iPad in the dust and its passive non-backlit screen is much easier on the eyes.
The absence of a keyboard as a creative and communication tool is the tablet device's most striking feature, and, for me, its disabling drawback. Tablet fans contend that its touch screen interface is a great advance in interactive technology. Sorry, I'm not buying. The on-screen virtual keyboard is no substitute for the tactile feedback of a real keyboard; it seems purposely designed to discourage writing anything but the most rudimentary grunts. If you need a device the creative empowerment of which begins and ends with the typing of tweets, here you are. I happen to require something more. But that's me.
Although iPad users can surf the Web using its built-in Safari browser, plainly its stand-alone apps are the focus of the user experience. Apple brags that some 500,000 apps by third-party software developers, including about 140,000 specifically written for the iPad, are available from its App Store. But none can be marketed without the say-so of Apple, which keeps 30% of the purchase price.
This is a disquieting approach. For one thing, it relentlessly drives up the ownership cost of the iPad. For example, I'm about to embark on a project for which a lot of the source material will be digital documents known as pdf files: articles from technical journals, newsletters, book chapters, etc. I was excited to think that the iPad might be convenient for reading and annotating these files, and assumed that it came with a free program for doing so, akin to the excellent Preview program embedded in my MacBook's operating system. No such luck: I'd have to buy a separate app, for $9.99. That may not seem like a lot of money, but if you're already spending more than $500 for a high-tech device, why should you have to keep paying to personalize it, at 10 bucks a pop?
Apple superintends the App Store like a blue-nosed corporate Mrs. Grundy, regularly ejecting apps that displease it. This process sometimes seems virtuous, as when the offending app is violent or anti-Semitic or could be used to promote child pornography.