And that's a great thing. A year ago, I lamented the Kindle's rise—the device was so wonderful, I argued, that it risked giving Amazon total control of the future of publishing. The iPad finally presents a worthy competitor in the e-book market, and the rivalry is sure to lead to positive outcomes for readers. The last time Amazon and Apple went head to head over digital media—Amazon launched an MP3 store to rival the iTunes Music Store—we all ended up getting music that was free of copyright restrictions. Competition could prove similarly fruitful for books.
The iPad won't turn us into Apple-controlled zombies. The iPad's best feature—the brilliant way in which it lets you surf content—is also one of the main raps against it. Because it lacks a physical keyboard and a camera, the iPad "actively resists the urges of people to make things," complains The Awl's Choire Sicha. A more withering take comes from Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing, who can't stand that Apple has locked down the device. The only way to get software for the iPad is through its built-in App Store, over which Apple maintains an iron grip. "If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn't for you," Doctorow writes.
Both criticisms are valid, but more than a little overwrought. It's true, as Sicha says, that the iPad isn't so great for getting work done. I tried out Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, the three productivity apps that Apple designed for the iPad, and while they could prove useful in some limited contexts, they're not a replacement for desktop versions of these programs. The next time I go on a business trip, I won't leave my laptop behind in favor of the iPad; I'll take both.
Still, it's not entirely true that the iPad is just for consuming stuff. The on-screen keyboard is much better than I suspected it would be—I found myself typing nearly as quickly and accurately as I can on a physical keyboard. I wouldn't want to write an article on the iPad, but it is certainly good enough to use for responding to e-mail while watching TV. Also, there are some forms of creativity for which the iPad might prove better than the PC. It's much easier to draw and paint with your finger than with a mouse; artist Jorge Colombo has created several covers for the New Yorker with the Brushes iPhone app, which is now bigger and better on the iPad.
But even if we accept Sicha's take that the iPad is only for consumption, what's so bad about that? Lots of human inventions offer no outlet for creating things—among them the DVD player, the Kindle, the Wii, and the paperback. None of these devices resulted in a dearth of art or criticism, and it seems paranoid to think that the iPad will have that effect on our culture.
I can't dismiss Doctorow's take as easily. He's certainly right that Apple's third-party software development model limits both what programmers and iPad owners can do on the device. I have long wished that Apple would loosen its rules on the App Store—or, at the very least, issue some transparent, easy-to-understand rules. At some point, it will have to give in, if only because its current path is unsustainable. As the iPhone and iPad win more users and more developers, Apple will face an increasingly difficult time reviewing all those apps—and eventually it will have to loosen its rules.
But I also think that App Store agonistes have overstated the importance of native programs to the future of computing. On the iPad, just as on the PC, I found that I spent a lot of time using Web programs—sites like Gmail, for example, that are swallowing up more and more of the functions of downloadable software. It's true that there's a lot that Web programs can't do yet, but modern Web standards and browsers are making online programs very powerful. As long as Apple keeps the iPad's browser compliant with these standards—which it seems intent on doing—it almost doesn't matter how the company rules the App Store. Through the Web, the device will always have unfettered access to a very wide range of programs.
The iPad's limitations portend the future of computing. But wait a second, doesn't the iPad's Web browser already limit one de facto Web standard—Flash? Yes, but there are a couple of caveats to note. First, Flash is not a Web standard; it's a proprietary technology owned by Adobe, and many of its functions are being replaced by modern Web standards like HTML5. Moreover, I didn't find Flash's absence so limiting. Many sites on which I watch Web video—YouTube, the New York Times, Netflix, Vimeo, the Onion, and others—are already available on the iPad. Hulu plans to launch an iPad-compatible site or app soon. Sure, I visited some sites with Flash-enabled functions that didn't work on the iPad, but these cracks rarely crippled the entire site, and I don't remember ever getting really annoyed about them.
Indeed, there were several other iPad shortcomings that bothered me more than the lack of Flash. Before Apple unveiled the iPad, I hoped the new device would be "the first fully powered PC that is as simple to use as a kitchen appliance." The iPad is that machine. Its operating system is based on the iPhone's OS, but even if you've never used an iPhone, you'll get the hang of the iPad in about 30 seconds: Tap an application's icon to load it, tap the home button to go back.
But this simplicity comes at the cost of flexibility. There are 1,000 things you can't do on the iPad. I wanted to add a "bookmarklet" to its Web browser—it wouldn't let me. I wanted to increase the browser's text size, but that option isn't available. I wanted to look at one window as a guide for something I was writing in another window, but I couldn't. In order to keep things simple, the iPad runs all apps in full-screen view, which means that you can't look at two windows at the same time. The iPad doesn't offer multitasking on third-party applications, either, so you can't run an IM program in the background as you can on your desktop. Worse, the iPad doesn't have a great way to notify you of processes occurring outside your main app. On my PC, I get a little pop-up bar showing me the sender and subject line of every incoming e-mail message. That would be very useful on the iPad, but there's no way to add it.