The Apple iPad: Three Unanswered Questions

3/12/10Follow @wroush

Today is the first day that consumers can put down money for an Apple iPad. If you pre-order a Wi-Fi model now, you can avoid waiting in the inevitable around-the-block lines when the gadget hits Apple Stores on Saturday, April 3. (If you want the Wi-Fi + 3G model, though, you’ll have to wait until late April.)

I know I’m going to buy an iPad sooner or later, but I don’t think I’ll pre-order one, mainly because of three big questions that haven’t yet been answered to my satisfaction. One of these is a matter that Apple could clear up, but hasn’t. The other two are questions that may not have definitive answers until the device has been out for a while and people have had some time to use it, and developers have had some time to figure out the best business models.

1. What will it feel like to use the iPad? I want to test-drive the device in a store before I decide which version to buy. In part, I’m concerned about the iPad’s ruggedness. If it strikes me as an all-purpose device that I can throw in my backpack and take everywhere, I’ll probably spend the extra for a 3G version. On the other hand, if it seems more like a delicate accessory that I’m only going to use on my couch at home, then one of the Wi-Fi versions will be perfectly sufficient.

Just as important, it’s still not clear to me how people will actually hold the iPad. In ads like this one, Apple almost always shows iPad users reclining with their knees raised, with the device positioned against their legs. If this is the only posture that makes ergonomic sense—that is, if the device has to be perched upon some kind of surface, such as your lap, before you can use it to full advantage—this could limit the machine’s usefulness, skewing it more toward recreation than productivity.

I’m hoping that it will be possible to hold the iPad with one hand while operating it with the other, but that all depends on how heavy it feels, how much gripping friction its glass and aluminum surfaces provide, and what kinds of accessories are available. All reasons that I want to try an iPad before I buy one.

2. Which existing iPhone apps will work on the iPad, and which will not? Apple has been careful to say that the Pad will run “almost all” of the more than 150,000 apps already available for the iPhone and the iPod Touch in the iTunes App Store. That “almost” is what I’m curious about. It’s a critical issue, because there are a few iPhone apps that would work so much better on the iPad that their exclusion from the new platform would be a serious shame. Yet I’m afraid that some of these are the exact apps that Apple may plan to exclude.

Apple’s decisions about two apps, in particular, could indicate whether the company sees the iPad as an open platform for all sorts of software, lifestyle, and business innovation, or, as some commentators have suggested, simply as a channel for selling digital content such as music, games, books, and videos.

One of these apps is Ignition, from Woburn, MA-based LogMeIn (NASDAQ: LOGM). It’s a $29.99 app that lets you control your PC or Mac from the screen of your iPhone.

Now, many people rave about Ignition, and it’s definitely cool, but the fact is that on an iPhone, it takes a lot of scrolling and zooming to navigate between all the buttons and menus on a typical Mac or PC screen. On the iPad’s much larger screen, this problem would presumably be solved. Even more intriguing, an iPad version of Ignition would essentially turn the Apple device into a kind of virtual PC, giving users access, via a remote connection, to many standard applications that don’t run natively on the iPhone or the Pad, such as PowerPoint or Quicken.

Will Apple allow this? There’s every reason it should, if it wants to sell iPads to people who take their computing seriously. But it’s the kind of thing that may conflict with Apple’s own ideas about what the iPad really is and how it should be used—so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cupertino giant balk at this one.

[Update 3/31/10: The Boston Globe is reporting that LogMeIn will offer an iPad version of Ignition starting April 3.]

Ditto for Amazon’s Kindle app, which has been available on the iPhone since March 2009. I love this app, because it lets me read any e-book that I purchased for my Kindle on my iPhone. This is extremely handy when I have a few minutes to do some reading but I don’t have my Kindle with me. The issue here, of course, is that an iPad version of the Kindle app would basically turn the iPad into a color Kindle, meaning that the Kindle app would compete directly with Apple’s own forthcoming iBooks application.

Well, not quite directly, since you can’t buy books through the Kindle app—you can only read the books you’ve already purchased, whereas iBooks will have a built-in wireless iBookstore. But if I can continue to purchase e-books through Amazon and read them on my iPad, that’s what I’ll do, since Amazon’s prices are generally lower than the $12.99 to $14.99 per book that publishers reportedly plan to charge through the iBookstore. So the Kindle app is another one whose absence from the lineup of iPad apps would not surprise me. (On the other hand, I’ve read reports that Barnes & Noble is building an e-reader app for the iPad, a project it probably wouldn’t undertake without positive signals from Apple, so maybe Apple doesn’t see the other online booksellers as a serious threat to iBooks.)

[Update 3/22/10: News reports are emerging that Amazon is building a version of its Kindle reader for the iPad. Engadget has some cool screen shots.]

3. How much will iPad-only apps cost? Will developers price apps developed especially for the iPad more like iPhone apps, which average around $1 or $2, or more like desktop apps? Apple may be setting an important precedent here by charging $9.99 each for the iPad versions of its iWork productivity programs. One of the nice things about the generally low prices on iPhone apps is that you don’t sweat buying them on impulse, just to try them out. If iPad apps are significantly more expensive than their iPhone counterparts, there will probably be less of that. On the other hand, a slightly higher price regime could help to weed out a lot of the junk apps.

*   *   *

As I said at the beginning, the real question isn’t whether I’m going to buy an iPad, it’s whether I’m going to pre-order one, and which model I’ll go for.

In the worst-case scenario, the iPad will still be good for browsing the Web, watching videos purchased from the iTunes Store, looking at digital photos, and reading e-books and magazines, which is worth $499 to me. In the best-case scenario—one where Apple treats the device as an open platform, and doesn’t try to dampen competition through artificial controls—the iPad could prove considerably more valuable, meaning I wouldn’t mind spending $829 on a top-of-the-line model (then saving up for the inevitable iPad Pro in 2011).

Unfortunately, it may not become clear which scenario we’re going to get until several months after the iPad hits stores, just as the real value of the iPhone didn’t become clear until Apple launched the iTunes App Store in the summer of 2008, a full year after releasing the phone itself. We’ll have to see whether my inner gadget freak can wait that long.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail, and you can download Pixel Nation, an e-book version of the first 80 columns, as a free PDF file or a $4.99 Kindle edition.

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

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  • http://www.zoolert.com ed@zL

    A lot of people, like myself, are waiting for Amazon to have it in stock so that we can save a few bucks on tax and get some accessories!

    You can use an online tracker, like zoolert to keep tabs on it :
    http://www.zoolert.com/apple-ipad-in-stock-tracker/

  • Steve W

    The iPad is not a phone. Does that give you a clue as to which Apps don’t work?

    Some iPads do not have 3G (or 2G). Does that give you another clue?

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  • M. Rad.

    The super-secret but now leaked developer agreement gives Apple the right to *remotely* disable any app on *your* i-whatever, after the fact and without recourse, forever. So if Apple allows a Kindle app today, that does not mean they won’t forcibly convert you to iBook later. Anyone who ties valuable media purchases and ingrained lifestyle habits to this platform is a first-class fool.

  • http://rickleephoto.com Rick Lee

    “Well, not quite directly, since you can’t buy books through the Kindle app”
    What do you think that “Get Books” button is for?

  • Wade Roush

    @Steve W: You’re right to point out that there are a few iPhone apps that depend on the device’s phone or 3G functions. But I think it’s a stretch to assume that these are the ones that Apple is creating an exception for when it says “almost all.” If that were the case, don’t you think the company would just say it?

    @Rick Lee: The “Get Books” button in the iPhone Kindle app does not let you buy books in-app, the way iBooks apparently will. It launches the Safari browser and takes you to a mobile-friendly version of Amazon’s Web-based Kindle store.

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  • newscaper

    I agree absolutely about the ergonomic issues. The iPad seems like a supersized iTouch, but I *don’t* see how you can hold it like that in the palm of one hand.

    If yo have to hold it one-handed by the edge, do your fingers cover part of the screen? Seems to me the design guys should have tempered their love of sleekness with some sort of thought to the types of ridges or swells that designers of larger cameras or even tv remote controls use, even if it was only a rubberized piece that was removable. I’ve also thought some sort of picture frame-like integrated ‘kick stand’ could have been nice. 3rd parties wil take care of these but they won’t be as nice as if they’d been designed in, the way that the various ipod/iphone gloves etc often interfere with docks.

  • M. Rad.

    Regarding newscaper’s post, I have a device much like what he describes. The Archos 705 has a bit of area on the edge to grip it and a kickstand to set it on a table. It squarish shape works well with the DVR dock and it can be used more or less as a direct replacement for a VHS deck without being tied into a mandatory subscription service.

    Though I have found it very handy as a video device, I can’t take it seriously as an ebook reader. The thing does display PDF’s natively, so why not? The battery life suffers due to the need to backlight a 7″ screen and spin a hard drive.

    The iPad suffers the same backlighting problem but avoids the spindle motor. But even the maximum available 64GB of main storage is paltry for a personal video device (even the 705′s 160GB is constraining in my experience). So we have a device with mediocre battery for an ebook reader and mediocre storage for video, but passably acceptable for both. That sounds to me very much like…drumroll…a netbook. Only this one is sleeker in its design, though not fundamentally more functional, and costs twice as much: it is a boutique netbook. If we accept that netbooks are mostly used as highly portable second computers that are intended only for light workloads, but not a subsitute for a “real” computer, then how much market will there be boutique variation that costs as much as a “real” laptop?

    After all, a business case can be made for an iPhone or other smartphone. Substituting silicon for petroleum is a common thread. Gadgets pay for themselves if they reduce fuel consumption:

    –Cellphones when monthly plans dropped into the $30′s: (“Should I get a gallon of milk on the way home?” And so on.)
    –Wi-fi hotspots instead of driving to the office.
    –Smartphones when they became capable enough to obviate trips to the office.
    –Home broadband when it dropped below $75/mo and made informal telecommuting possible.
    –GPS units when the price dropped below $200.
    –A Kindle when an extra checked bag full of reference books costs $50 or more.
    –Netflix and Tivo vs. Blockbuster

    Often the business case is delusional about how much a gadget is used for real work rather than useless play, but the argument is, at its core, reasonable. However, it is hard for me to see the iPad being perceived as anything other than a luxury item until it either improves enough to truly replace a TiVo or a Kindle, or its price drops to $300.

  • Joe Bruno

    Apple don’t make decisions about which iPod apps can run on the iPad and which can’t. It’s purely a technical question. If an iPod app requires a hardware facility that doesn’t exist on the iPad, it won’t run; if it doesn’t, it will.

    An iPod app on the iPad is still an iPod app, running on an iPod-sized window in the middle of the iPad (or pixel-doubled so it almost fills the iPad’s screen).

    The more interesting question is which apps’ publishers will choose to do the extra work to make their iPod apps into iPad apps. At this point an Apple approval process *is* required, but I think it would be difficult for Apple to say “accepted for the iPod, rejected for the iPad” on anything other than technical grounds.

  • Rob

    “The iPad will still be good for browsing the Web, watching videos purchased from the iTunes Store, looking at digital photos, and reading e-books and magazines, which is worth $499 to me”

    How much discretionary income to you have? It darn well better do a lot more than that to warrant a $500 price tag to me. Especially for just a big-ol ipod touch.

  • billy annonymous

    Steve W. is a dumb d-bag.

  • Adam

    Why these three questions?

    You prove the answers do not influence the purchase decision.

    These seem like important decision points for a product management team to fret over while Steve ties their hands behind their backs (note his strenuous objection to a stylus or Newton-like gestures … old biases die hard with Mr Jobs.)

    At $499, it’s something just about any and every Apple devotee will rationalize into their backpack along with their MacBook and it’s charging cable and dock and paraphernalia. I think we see the demise of portable video players as well as the decline of in-car video systems — the parents and the kids alike will prefer the iPad.

    Roll on AAPL $300! : )

  • http://Google A.Malik

    I have a 4th question. why the safari of ipad 3G didn’t accept download like skype- google talk video with chat justlike other computers-any secret ?

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