What’s So Magical About an Oversized iPhone? Plenty—And There’s More to Come

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Apple had brought the technologies together in such a beautiful, graceful, and convincing way, and made the package affordable to so many consumers (42 million so far).

But the thunderbolt that was the iPhone hit three whole years ago. We grow jaded quickly nowadays. As comedian Louis C.K. remarked so accurately to Conan O’Brian, “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” (C.K. continued with an obvious-but-stunning-when-you-really-think-about-it reminder for airline passengers: “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky.” Believe me, that’s on my mind every time I fly.)

So yes, the iPad is a big honkin’ iPhone (or iPod Touch, more precisely, since it won’t actually function as a cell phone). But that’s exactly why it’s amazing. The iPhone gave us a taste of what multitouch can do, and broke open the first small fissure in the WIMP paradigm (for Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing device)—the apex of user interfaces since the 1970s. But on a phone’s little screen, you don’t have enough runway to make really intricate or dramatic touch gestures. On the larger screen of the iPad—45.2 square inches, by my calculations, compared to the iPhone’s 5.9 square inches—multitouch will find much fuller expression, and the fissure will become a serious crack.

It’s so much easier to manipulate graphical content through touch that even three-year-olds understand the iPhone. And the multitouch-intensive applications that Apple showed off at this week’s iPad event, like the photo album and the Brushes drawing app, provided only a faint preview of the types of touch-driven apps that programmers will brainstorm over the coming months. If recent history is any indication, we should plan on being amazed.

After all, who could have foreseen back in 2007 that developers would come up with iPhone apps like Panolab, in which multitouch gestures are used to rotate and align multiple photos into huge panoramas and collages, or Ocarina, which makes the iPhone into a four-holed flute, or Autodesk’s Fluid, which lets you draw swirling smoke patterns on your screen? Apple, which knows a good thing when it sees it, has already added multitouch support to the glass trackpads on the latest MacBook laptops, and now it has designers and illustrators and even its own competitors drooling publicly over the iPad. My guess is that within a few years, we’ll be wondering why all personal computers don’t work this way.

Now, it’s true that Apple could have loaded more features into the iPad 1.0. Every tech person I’ve spoken with in the past couple of days has expressed surprise over one omission or another—for example, the absence of a front or back camera. (The word I’m hearing is that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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