The Apple iPad: Three Unanswered Questions

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.

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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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