On the iPad…

Don’t post that often, yada yada, etc etc. Anyway, the iPad was finally released on Saturday to a sea of fanboys and scorn, and maybe even some in-between. Some great battles have been fought over the years. Coke vs Pepsi, Yankees or the Mets, Democrat or Republican – and finally iPad, it’s great or it’s the cancer killing computing. Or at least, if you read the blogs and listen to the podcasts, that is what you might have heard. After getting to spend a bit of time with it, the one thing I can say with certainty: Most of what you are hearing is overblown.

First Impressions

The thing is fast. Like, wicked fast. Scrolling is smooth. Zooming is quick and effortless. When you touch the device, it responds. To be honest, I was a bit blown away by how quick it feels. When you touch the screen, you can almost feel something happen. Scrolling through photos is almost as tactile as picking through photos in a real album. I get the real sense that from the time the first computer scientist punched a card with 0’s and 1’s, this is what he intended and wished it would feel like.

The device is also beautiful in it’s simplicity. If you open the box, it’s worth noting the minuscule amount of documentation. Legal notices and a description of buttons. That’s because a child could figure it out. This is not a device that will ever need to be managed. You won’t worry about crashes, spyware, file system organization, and the other problems with regular computing. The built-in apps are incredibly simple to use and I get the feeling that even the most novice of computer users will take to the iPad like a duck to water. Smooth aluminum, a simple black bezel, a shiny apple, and all screen.

The other thing you will notice is that it feels like an extension of the iPhone. That’s nothing that is too surprising, but if you like the iPhone interface, you’ll probably love the iPad interface. It feels a bit like a grown-up iPhone. If you are like me and have found yourself sitting on the couch thinking “Gah, I wish the screen was bigger!”, then you will probably be pleased by the iPad.

Safari, Mail, iBooks, and iPod.

Safari is excellent. You really notice the scrolling and quick zoom while browsing. I checked a few sites and found that it renders really well. There is definitely something about browsing on the iPad that you won’t notice until you have your hands on the device. It’s really comfortable, and the display looks great. I also found that the screen is large enough that you don’t really have to do a lot of zooming like you would with an iPhone. The top sites-esque version of page management doesn’t quite replace real tabs, but is adequate for casual browsing. I still really hope to see tabs in a future version.

But what about Flash? Well. this is hit or miss. A lot of popular sites have opted to create an HTML5 version of their pages, which looks great. I went over to Vimeo and the NYTimes site, and both looked very good. However, I was sadly disappointed to see that Hulu just gives you a big “You need Flash” logo. I personally use ClickToFlash on OS X because Flash on everything but Windows is awful, so I personally don’t have much of a problem. Still, given Flash’s prevalence on the web, it’s a bit annoying to run into the lego of doom.

With Mail, there is really nothing to write home about. The dual pane view in landscape mode is great, but it otherwise works about the exact same as the iPhone and iPod Touch equivalent. For light email, it’s great. As a device for your personal mail, I think you will be okay with the iPad. Email power-users will be predictably disappointed, just as they were with iPhone mail.

Perhaps one of the big question marks surrounds iBooks. Personally, I found iBooks a pretty competent replacement for casual readers. The display here is crisp, but the fonts aren’t quite as sharp as on the Kindle. Likewise, the glare can be a bit annoying in high light situations (outside on a bright day, for example), but in doors it works great. The Kindle (hardware) should be worried. Since the Kindle app should be coming to the iPad soon, Amazon doesn’t necessarily have to worry about selling books, though. For ebook variety, the iPad probably ranks supreme. For hardcore readers that will spend hours and hours reading books at a time, the Kindle’s e-ink display still slights the iPad a bit.

The iPod app is closer to desktop iTunes than it is to iPhone iPod. The feel of the iPod app is very similar to iTunes. Genius and playlist creation are included on the iPad, so you won’t really miss much from the iTunes desktop version. Music playing isn’t a tough task to nail, but still, the iPod player does a great job of it. The weird omission here is coverflow, but my guess is that Apple decided that the flash from coverflow was unnecessary. Personally, I don’t really use coverflow on iTunes or the iPhone (nor does anyone else I’ve talked to), so I didn’t miss anything.

The Keyboard

Another big question mark with the iPad is how the keyboard works. Sadly, you will still miss a hardware keyboard. Fortunately, Apple has allowed you to work around this buy using either the Keyboard Dock accessory, or a standard Apple Bluetooth Keyboard. While the size here works well, there is no tactile feedback, so I don’t expect to be composing any dissertions on the iPad. It’s perfectly adequate for a bit of email, some quick edits to Pages documents, typing in URLs, and other quick tasks. I imagine that extended use with the iPad will speed up typing quite a bit, and this may become less annoying, but for now I still long for a hardware keyboard.

Movies and Games

Movies on the iPad look very good. Some question the lack of a true widescreen display (looking at you, Paul Thurrott), but holding the device makes it easy to see why they chose the dimensions for the display they did. A typical widescreen display would feel elongated and awkward, while the iPad feels like what you’d want for a variety of tasks. Turning it to landscape and watching a movie feels comfortable, even with the large letterboxing on the top and bottom. The speaker is surprisingly adequate, at least comparing with a standard laptop speaker. If you really enjoy bass, you’ll still probably want a good set of headphones or speakers.

Games on the iPad are another matter. I’m a bit torn on the gaming aspect. On the one hand, it makes all those games on the iPhone a bit more comfortable and feel more natural. On the other hand, they don’t seem significantly better than the iPhone counterparts. Perhaps because most developers are just getting their own iPads, the games don’t quite set themselves apart from the iPhone. They feel like the same games from the iPhone, but with better resolutions. The other concern is that they are significantly more expensive (Plants VS Zombies is $2.99 on the iPhone, but 9.99 on the iPad.) Nothing I played could quite justify the cost increase. The launch of the original App Store suggest that the prices may come down (average prices were higher at the original launch, so hopefully they’ll come down for the iPad.)

The Future of Computing and the App Store

Pundits across the internet are basically siding a couple different ways, as I hinted in the introduction. Many proclaim that the closed nature of the App Store might have dire consequences for general purpose computing, while others claim that computing should be done the way the iPad has done it. Fortunately, both sides are alarmist, and largely wrong.

The reality of the situation is that the iPad is not going to replace computing for most people. For example, want to print something? You can’t do it without a computer. Same for firmware upgrades, or getting non-iTunes music and movies on to the device. As I said earlier, the keyboard is not nearly adequate enough for heavy content creation. The content creation apps, like Pages, Numbers and Keynote, are note adequate for complex documents. The iPad is good for edits and arranging documents and things, but I certainly don’t see anyone giving up their laptop for this. I also certainly don’t see businesses replacing their workstations with iPads any time soon. The iPad might replace a netbook, but we’ve already decided that a netbook is a companion device to a real laptop or desktop.

Likewise, the closed nature of the App Store makes it unlikely that the iPad will ever usurp a Windows or Mac OS X computer any time soon. The fact is that too many people like customization. While the ease of use with the App Store is nice, it will fall down as soon enough people want to get porn or a Google Voice app on the iPad.

Could this be be a change in how we think of computing? Perhaps. This iPad is most definitely not the change itself, however. An evolutionary version of this device might be something we use, and I have a feeling that this class of device will most definitely find a home with many of us (as the iPod has), but I think there are enough caveats that there is no real possibility of the current iPad replacing anyone’s computer. Remember that the original iPod didn’t take hold until the second or third generation. I can easily see that happening, but not the current version.

Final Thoughts

So should you buy it? Maybe. If you already have an iPod Touch or an iPhone, find yourself using it all time and wishing it was bigger or had better battery life, then probably. If you are in the market for a netbook, the iPad is worth considering. If you are thinking of buying a Kindle (especially the DX), you should probably buy the iPad instead for the versatility.

Still, the iPad really achieves little that your current gear won’t already. A laptop or desktop still easily crushes the iPad for most tasks, and a smartphone (the iPhone in particular) will still handle most mobile tasks well enough. We are still in the very early days of the App store, so I fully expect that there might be some (or many) apps that come out that move this device from a “maybe” to a “must.” In fact, this idea is most definitely worth repeating. The game changing apps have yet to be released. Look for the real iPad-defining apps in the next 3-6 months.

What the iPad does really well is casual tasks. In the morning, I grab my iPhone and read some RSS feeds during breakfast. The iPad would most certainly make this task more comfortable. Likewise, during the evening, commutes, or quick jaunts to the coffee shop, I watch some video or read a little. I think the iPad could easily replace the notebook or the iPhone for these types of use cases. In fact, the iPad really excels in these situations. The iPad does well to augment your current computing devices, but I doubt that it can fully replace any of the devices you are currently using.

The interesting thing, though, is how this device might shape future computing. Expect the responsiveness, speed, and polish in the future. The draconian App Store polices and lack of features, not so much.


Firefox 3.6 Beta 1 Released

The Firefox Beta was just released for version 3.6. Lots of improvements, most notably:

From Mozilla

  • Users can now change their browser’s appearance with a single click, with built in support for Personas.
  • Firefox 3.6 will alert users about out of date plugins to keep them safe.
  • Open, native video can now be displayed full screen, and supports poster frames.
  • Support for the WOFF font format.
  • Improved JavaScript performance, overall browser responsiveness and startup time.
  • Support for new CSS, DOM and HTML5 web technologies.

Personal Notes

  • Mac version now has smooth scrolling.
  • Simpler pages (text and images) seem to load faster than Safari 4. No benchmarks to back this up yet.
  • Application seems more responsive overall.
  • Still notably absent is native cocoa and keychain support.
  • Faster start up, even from a cold start.

Remember, this release will break compatibility with most extensions. Fortunately, you can get around this by doing the following:

  1. Go to the address bar and type about:config
  2. Click “I’ll be careful, I promise!”
  3. Right click anywhere, highlight New, and select Boolean
  4. Make its name extensions.checkCompatibility, and make the value False.
  5. Restart Firefox and give those extensions a shot.

This method doesn’t fix every extension (some are unfortunately just not compatible), but it does allow some of the big ones like Adblock Plus and Greasemonkey to work.

So far, this version seems much improved from 3.5, and I may actually start using it full time on OS X. If you like living on the edge, hit the link and give it a shot.

Firefox 3.6 Beta 1 Download


Weekly Rant: On Net Neutrality

Time to take a second and rant about net neutrality. You’ll find net neutrality discussions raging on just about any tech or internet related forum this week, with even the mainstream media getting their hands in the pot. Some claim that legislating net neutrality will stifle innovation and lead to the demise of free market capitalism, and others claiming that not legislating net neutrality will likely mean the downfall of the American section of the internet.

Net neutrality, in a nutshell, is the idea that the internet service providers, such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon should not give special treatment to the data flowing through their networks. For the most part, its the way the internet works right now. On a non-neutral network, the ISPs could give more priority to traffic of their choice, or degrade the speed of traffic of their choice. Comcast, for example, might degrade traffic from Hulu so that customers would be deterred from using it and instead use their service, or it could give special treatment to traffic from their own streaming offerings.

As you can see, there is a clear conflict of interest in some cases. John McCain sponsored a bill this past week, ironically dubbed the Internet Freedom Act, which would bar the FCC or other government bodies from regulating the internet or ISPs. That’s the same John McCain that doesn’t know how to check his email, in case you were wondering. Right wingers have pushed the idea that we should let the free market take care of itself, that the government only wants net neutrality to get its hands further around the internet, net neutrality would be the new fairness doctrine, and it would put a stranglehold on the ISPs and innovation.

In the words of Penn and Teller, bullshit.

The clear thing to understand in the debate about net neutrality is that the net is already neutral. The FCC is at this time only seeking to make it official, and bar ISPs from changing this. In a non neutral environment, the ISPs ultimately would control the internet. The would have the power to slow down traffic from less popular sites, or sites that don’t pay a special fee, while big players like Google and Amazon would likely have to pay to get their traffic through quickly.

There are a few other clear conflicts of interest here. In the case of Comcast, who is positioning themselves to buy NBC Universal, what happens to the traffic from, say, CBS? How about Verizon and AT&T. Do they let Skype and other VOIP services through unmolested?

Some of you may be listening to the rhetoric coming from the side of the ISPs, saying they should have the right to prioritize traffic from hospitals and the health care institution because it could be very time sensitive. That all this talk about extra payment is speculation and that the ISPs would use this power for good.

I’d point to a couple of things. First, Comcast has already shown how it “manages it’s network” with the bittorrent fiasco last year. Comcast decided to throttle bittorrent to near unusable speeds when they determined its a popular method for sharing files. The problem, of course, is that bittorrent is not solely used to abuse copyright. A stop was put to this by the FCC last year as well.

AT&T and Verizon have shown via their text messaging costs that they have no problem charging extra just for changing where the traffic is coming from. Even though they both support unlimited data plans (which actually has limits, but we’ll save that for later), they charge exorbitant  rates for text messaging, even though it’s just data. In fact, for those of you doing the math, it might cost as much as a thousand per gigabyte.

The problem of net neutrality is exacerbated by the lack of choice in providers in the US. I have exactly two choices for providers where I am – Comcast Cable and Qwest DSL. The DSL service is generally slower, while a little cheaper. But both Comcast and Qwest are pushing for the Internet Freedom Act. My choice seems to be between bad and worse.

So why would McCain sponsor a bill that seems so anti-consumer? I’ll just leave this here, and let you decide for yourself. It seems to me that on one side, we have ISPs, Telcos, lobbyists and the politicians, and on the other we have everyone else.

Jon Stewart had some thoughts about net neutrality, which I will leave you with.


The weekly rant is a space for me to yammer on about all those frustrating things I find on the internet, with technology, and life in general. Watch out for heated discussion and NSFW language.


Barnes and Noble to Take on the Kindle

Courtesy of Gizmodo/Wired

Courtesy of Gizmodo/Wired

Barnes and Noble have just announced their own ebook reader, The Nook. The Nook is reported to run Android, and has both a small color touchscreen in addition to using a 6inch e-ink display. The touch screen will be for navigating the device, as well as the internet. Other notable features are the 2 GB of storage, Wifi, 3G, and a MP3 capability. The device is reported to support both epub and PDF.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to note about this device is the ad set to run in the New York Times which says “Lend ebooks to friends.” Aside from the lack of a public library for ebooks, the other big problem is reselling ebooks and lending to friends. Allowing for the ability to lend ebooks or resell them make this an interesting looking device.


Apple Releases New Hardware, Still Can’t Stop Reinventing the Whe… Errr, Mouse

The Apple Store is back up, and with it new hardware. Specifically beefed up Mini’s (now available with Snow Leopard Server), new iMacs with bigger, better displays, redesigned plastic Macbooks, and The Magic Mouse. The new hardware looks pretty great, with the exception of the Magic Mouse.

Here’s the thing Apple. The mouse has already been done, and it’s been done pretty well. I get it, you don’t like buttons. But sometimes, you need buttons. The new mouse looks like a step back in terms of usability, and only furthers the hilarity that connected to nice, expensive Macs you don’t often find Apple Mice, you find $15 Microsoft Mice. More proof of the Onion’s prescience. NSFW.

Apple mice designers: Bluetooth, laser, 2 buttons and a tilt wheel. It’s not that hard.


Why Android Won’t be Usurping the iPhone Any Time Soon

This week brings a new competitor to the smart phone market – Droid, from Motorola. Little is known about Droid thus far, except that it will feature Android 2.0, a physical keyboard, touch screen, a 5.0 megapixel digital camera with autofocus, and that it seems to position itself directly against the iPhone.

Motorola has released an ad targeted pretty much directly at the iPhone, and is using the rather daring tagline “iDon’t [blank] … Everything iDon’t, droid does.” The ad in question. The ad takes shots at the iPhone’s lack of a physical keyboard, notoriously bad App Store approval process, shoddy home screen, and a few others. But it severely misses something – the apps.

iPhone unquestionably has the largest mobile app store market. Now that many phones are catching up to the iPhone in overall usability, the big differentiator seems to be what you can actually do with the phone itself. And, of course, what you can do with the phone is largely dependent on the apps available for the platform. Right now, the iPhone handily beats the rest of the market with regards to what’s available for it.

Indeed, this is a bit counter intuitive. Blackberry, for example, still has more of the mobile market than the iPhone, an open development environment allowing you to install pretty much whatever you’d like, and has been around quite a while longer than the iPhone. But Apple’s store still trounces the catalog of apps available for Blackberry.

While people erupt over the iPhone’s seemingly arbitrary app store approval process, which has lead to denied applications and developers wondering if their app will ever be approved, the store still continues to grow, attracting new developers each day.

Apple has done something pretty amazing in regards to the iPhone. They’ve made a powerful platform, capable of doing 3d games reminiscent of the quality you’d get out of the original Playstation, and given customers an easy way to discover new content. Customers don’t have to check system specs before downloading, because 95% of the material available in the app store will work across all phones. The only small fracture being the new capabilities in the iPhone 3GS. Developers can code with confidence that their app will run on every iPhone on the market. Ironic, considering what a blistering failure the same sort of ideas would be on the desktop computer market.

And now let’s get back to Android. A very capable, open source mobile platform with the ability to run on just about anything. Very open development, allowing developers to harness just about every level of the hardware and OS itself. And it’s not going to take off, at least not in the way the iPhone has.

It’s biggest weakness is it’s biggest strength. Android can run on anything. Great for those that want total control and choice in their mobile device. Great for the developer, but also completely terrible. When writing the app, do you optimize for a touchscreen? Trackball? Physical keyboard? Onscreen keyboard? What CPU is it going to run? How much memory will it have?

This isn’t to say that Android won’t live on, but I think what you are going to see is more fragmented implementations like Android’s desktop cousin, Linux. We’ve already begun to see some of this with HTC’s Sense, and now Motorola’s Blur. Desktop Linux, however, does face one less challenge than Android, however. A developer writing an app for a desktop Linux can reasonably assume that the user has a keyboard and mouse.

As the iPhone has shown us, what works on the desktop doesn’t necessarily work on mobile devices. Actually, I guess I should say what Windows Mobile has shown us, given that it is the closest to a desktop experience, and arguably one of the worst mobile operating systems, but I digress. The majority of users are going to simply want to know that it works. Android does sort of confuse the issue a bit, and will likely introduce a new question to mobile customers: will this app work with my handset?

I hope I am wrong, and that the Droid, and the Android platform, is a runaway success. We’ve been shown over and over that competition is good for the customer, and iPhone owners will most certainly gain from a strong Android platform. I just hope that the biggest competition Android faces is not Android itself.


Windows 7 Parties – Definitely lame, but successful?

While watching This Week in Tech today, I couldn’t help but notice Leo and the gang talking again about the Windows 7 launch parties. As you’ve probably already heard, Microsoft is sponsoring house parties for selected volunteers. There was a video released from Microsoft which suggested different things you could do at your Windows party – and it was terrible. The whole thing was awkward, and seemed a bit too much like an instruction video your mom might give you for your first party.

So of course, no one signed up and this is a total marketing flop. Except it isn’t. Actually, Microsoft had to cut off some volunteers and it would seem that everyone is talking about it. As I said, I’ve heard more stuff about it on TWiT this week, as well as some of Leo’s other shows. Buzz Out Loud has covered this a few times as well, and basically the entire tech blog sector has done at least one story on it.

Microsoft is no stranger to awkward and confusing marketing. Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld left people scratching their heads wondering what Seinfeld, or that ad campaign for that matter, had to do with windows, or even Microsoft. Another recent commercial suggests that Windows 7 is the choice of 7 year olds everywhere in a gag reflex inducing attempt to be cute and point out Windows 7’s simplicity.

And as I recalled these events I realized something. Microsoft is an advertising troll. Apple takes the hipster route and gets people talking about their commercials by taking shots at windows and being a little smarmy. HP or Dell are generally very conservative, and seem to take a rather traditional approach to advertising.

And then there is Microsoft. One of the richest tech companies in world, whose name is nearly synonymous with desktop computing, releasing these poor ads. On the surface, they are horrid. But when was the last time the tech news industry covered a bland Intel ad for two weeks? Free publicity. If you read any kind of tech news or listen to tech podcasts, you’d be hard pressed not to know that Windows 7 is soon to be released.

They are either doing this on purpose, or Microsoft desperately needs to fire their ad department.


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