Thursday, 8 September 2011

iPad: the sad state of the art

(Note before assuming I'm an Apple hater: I own a few Apple devices, none of them a Mac. I've been -and plan to continue using- an iPad for eight months, and recently purchased another one for a family member)

With the latest failed attempt of HP to at least establish some presence in the tablet market, and the subsequent hugely successful sale after the price drop, I did a cursory examination of the tablet market. What should be nice about the HP experience (well, at least from the point of view of the aspiring tablet marketers) is that the lesson should be clear: you cannot challenge a market leader unless you're clearly superior in one, or preferably more, dimensions. A tablet that does not have as many built in apps, or more battery life, or less weight, or lower price, or is more rugged, or has markedly better user interface, is not a contender for Apple. Dramatic improvements in one of these do have a real impact in the mind of the consumer.

But, really, how superior is the iPad over their competitors? Among all the reviews that try to compare every other tablet with the iPad, that is not clear to me. All those reviews leave me with the feeling that somehow the iPad competitors lack something that the iPad has, but without clearly labeling them, perhaps because the iPad shortcomings are shared with their competitors, perhaps for some other reasons.

But nowhere I've read anyone complaining about the iPad lacking some feature. Or not being the best of breed. And, after a few months of using it, and a second device added to the family inventory, I'm surprised that no one has complained about a few irritating things that come with using an iPad. One has to assume that the competition is at least worse in those areas.

First, registering a new device is a nightmare. Not only you have to authorize iTunes to fiddle with your device, but you are also strongly encouraged get an Apple ID. What the purpose of this account is not entirely clear until you arrive at the credit card section. Unless you enter a valid credit card number, you cannot get your Apple ID. Period.

The main implication of this are that you cannot get the ID unless you have a credit card on hand. Minors always can sneak out the credit card number from dad or mom to do it. But this insistence on the credit card number leaves one with a feeling of the Apple store being in the same category as those other sites that require a credit card to register. And to some extent, it is: Apple is first and foremost a business interested in getting profits and business from their users.

The irony here is that is that if you -legally- own an iPad is because either you have bought it or you've received it as a gift. In the first case, you've likely paid for the device using nothing more nothing less than ... watch it, a credit or debit card. In the second case, you've received the present and likely are anxious to try it. This spoils half of the excitement of the present when little Bobby cannot activate his brand new toy. And makes the register process look like you're singing in to a sport betting site (or adult themed, or....)

In fairness to Apple, you can remove the credit card information after you have validated your ID, but this is a very poor practice because they are requesting information that is of no use to them unless they want to charge you. Only someone in such a dominant position in the market could get away with this. Imagine Microsoft or Google asking for your credit card number as a precondition to signing in to their free services.

But that's a minor quibble. You've yet to face iTunes. iTunes, at least in Windows is terrible. iThings are market leaders, so we have to assume that at best, iTunes is the PC interface for close than 80% of the iThing user population. With that in mind, is still difficult to understand how can iTunes be so bad. A few of the remarkable experiences I've had:

  • iTunes offers to manage your music library. That means basically that you don't know what is happening with the things you add. Once you add some content to the library, it is supposedly going to appear magically in your iPad. Except when it does not, so you add it again. Which sometimes results in the thing getting the song or video, except when sometimes appears duplicated. All this would be a minor nuance if only your library would not disappeared suddenly without explanation. At this point, you decide that is best to use iTunes as a sort of file manager, dropping the the things you want to add.
  • Plugging your iThing and getting iTunes running and recognizing your device is a hit and miss afair (at least in Windows) Sometimes iTunes runs instantly and shows your iThing in the left hand panel. Sometimes its window does not appear. Sometimes the iTunes window appears but is frozen for a looong time. Sometimes it complains about not finding some content providers after the freeze. Sometimes it doesn't. You'll quickly learn to unplug and plug it again so that it sort of works.
  • The UI feedback for drag and drop has huge lags, especially when you drag and drop more than a few files (on a Core2 Duo 3.3 GHZ machine with 4GB of RAM) You quickly learn to check the device after ejecting it, because sometimes the content is added, sometimes it's not. The fun part is when you plug it again (praying that is recognized quickly) and add the content again. This sometimes has the desired effect, sometimes does not, and there's the third option, when you find that you have in fact added two copies of the same song. If only they were there the first time you added them....
  • Your library can only be synchronized to one type of iThing. Say you have an iPad for you and an iPad2 for your wife. You have to create another user profile in Windows and use separate users and libraries for each. This clearly points to Apple designing their products for singles, or for use by a single person, or better yet (at least for Apple) to discourage the sharing of the iThings. Not much of a problem if you've already decided that is best that iTunes does not manage your library, because you're going to manage the contents of each device by hand anyway.
  • More than one store is too many stores. There is an App store, and the iTunes store. A well, there is also a book store. For the leader in user interface design, it is amazing how they can manage to separate their offerings in a way that makes hard to use a device designed in theory to be used without any training or documentation.
  • Are your mail contacts synchronized? No worries if they aren't. You navigate to the iTunes device configuration page, where you hit the "Configure" button and then... nothing happens. As you expect from the leaders in user experience, that's easy to solve. You just go to the advanced preferences and clear your synchronization history, and then hit the "Configure" button again. This time, a configuration dialog pops up where you can enter the details of your mail account. Then you synchronize your iPad and unplug it, only to find that your contacts are not there. No problem just plug it again and repeat until it works. Remember to wait patiently each time, because iTunes needs to freeze or ignore the device at random.

Some would say that all this -except perhaps the problems when plugging in devices- does not happen when you purchase your content from the iTunes store. Since I don't have a Mac, I cannot say if the user experience is as terrible as in Windows, but certainly there is a HUGE mismatch between how easy and streamlined the experience is on the device itself and iTunes. In fact, I try to avoid iTunes in as much as possible. Which leads me to the following topic.

The iPad is a read only device. Whatever content you put there, it cannot be read to be copied elsewhere. Not using iTunes, not using the own device. Want to send an MP3 song to a friend by mail? Not with the iPad. Even if that song comes from your MP3 collection of ripped CDs. The only content you can retrieve from the device is whatever has been sent by mail or the pictures and movies you've made using the device.

It's not only read only, but also tightly closed. Of course, one can jailbreak it in a number of ways, but that has other-known and unknown- implications, plus is not supposedly to mean using it the way their designers thought it was going to be used. Want to develop iPad apps? There's a $100 fee to enter the xCode club. Which would not be that bad if it were not because the development environment only runs on a Macintosh machine, which raises a bit the entry fee. Come on, Apple, we have reached the point where one can build an entire cluster of scientific computing machines without incurring in a single dollar of license costs.

The whole "walled garden" approach means that you cannot install and run whatever you want on the device. You're subject to the criteria and mercy of Apple and their custodians of the AppStore. Want another web browser? Sorry, Mobile Safari should be enough for you. Still, I miss tabs in Safari, instead of the multiple window approach. Something I could probably try if browser apps were not banned from the AppStore. If they are not banned, Mozilla and Google are being very lazy with their iOS versions.

While we are speaking about software, again you need to lower your expectations. It's true that the iPad does not blue screen. But applications certainly crash, which usually mean that they disappear and you go back to the desktop. As we all know, the Apple store blocks undocumented API usage, open source media players adult themed content (with the irony stated above) and in-app payment models that do not fit with Apple's view of the world. It cannot filter plain bad apps, or apps that crash when you rotate the device.

To further lower your expectations again, do not expect the iPad response time to remain the same as you fill up the device with content. With about 1GB of disk space free you'll start seeing how badly fragmentation impacts it and everything will become slower, to the point of having to plug into iTunes (aaarghhh... the plugin bugs) and clean up some content. Sometimes, after months of usage, the device benefits enormously from a reboot (hold on the two buttons at once, slide to turn it off and turn it on back again) And god protect you from opening a page in Safari that makes it crash, when you try to reopen the browser it will attempt to load it again, crashing unless you're quick enough to stop Safari from attempting to load it.

And finally, forgive me to add something about the user interface. In spite of the much promoted consistency, there are still annoying flaws. Whoever designed those scroll bars did not provided a way to navigate to the top or bottom of something without having to perform finger gymnastics. Oh yes, in some places, like Safari, you can at least click in the title bar to go to the top of something. But that gesture does not always work, and there remains the question of how to navigate to the end of something.

I suppose loyal database users feel the same when they hear about other engines. Supposedly, they are using the state of the art, and they run daily across things that are not even close to be acceptable. Get on folks, that is the state of the art in the products that are supposed to be the state of the art. Imagine how bad are the others.

But as with the database we keep using, the final verdict on the iPad is that is a very convenient device. Such convenience more than makes up for all those hassles quoted above. There are some usage scenarios where the iPad beats hands down a desktop, laptop, netbook or phone. Hopefully someone else does not repeat HP mistakes. The barrier is high, but is not impossible to do it better than Apple, at least in some dimensions (price?)

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