Questions (and Answers) on the iPad's Shortcomings

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

A guest plays with an iPad during an Apple event in San Francisco

If you time-traveled back to 1995 and asked the leading futurists of that time where our machines were soon to take us, you might well have heard just as much rhapsodizing about document-centric interfaces as that about hypertext and the World Wide Web. The first generation of software interfaces forced the user to think too much about the tools, the story went, and too little about the task. If you wanted to write a memo, you had to think, "First I must launch Microsoft Word, my tool, and then create a new document." If you wanted to embed some piece of information that Microsoft Word wasn't optimized for, you had to launch another application, create and modify a new element there, and then move back to your original application environment, where you could deposit the alien data object. A number of proposed interfaces — most famously, Apple's failed OpenDoc initiative, shut down shortly after the company acquired NeXT — promised to reverse the priorities: our desktops would prioritize the tasks over the tools, the documents over the applications. The user wouldn't launch documents inside an application. They'd just create a document on its own, which would lie there like a surgical patient, and if you needed a specific tool — a little word-processing here or some video-editing there — you just grabbed that tool and started working on the patient in front of you. In the application-centric model, you were constantly lugging organs into other operating rooms and then dragging them back.

The weird thing about the iPad is that it has landed us 180 degrees from where we thought we were heading. The iPad interface — like the iPhone's — tries to do everything in its power to do away with documents and files. There is no Finder or root-level file navigation. It's apps, apps, apps, as far as the eye can see. According to the demo last week, the main way to launch iWork documents is by an internal document-selection process after launch, where your files are presented to you in a gallery format.

I truly don't know how I feel about this. It might be genius. Maybe most users are more confused by Finders and File Explorers than I've realized. But I can't help thinking that if the iPad really wants to be a device that you might take on a business trip instead of the laptop, it's going to need a little more document-centrism. By a wide margin, the most disappointing element of the user interface, or UI, is the home screen, which is virtually unchanged from the original iPhone UI. (The iPad is far, far more than a blown-up iPod Touch, but you can't tell from the home screen.) Surely there's a better way to exploit multitouch and that extra screen real estate for navigating all the information that will be stored on these machines. I have no inside information on this, but given the inventiveness of the iWork user experience, I can't help thinking that an iPad-native home environment was a project that didn't make the ship dates, and that they slapped on the old iPhone screen for continuity at the last minute. But time will tell.

And letting time tell is what we need to do. This is the most ambitious thing Steve Jobs has attempted since the original Mac. The iPhone revolutionized smartphones, but I think we all accept that smartphones were in our future. There is no equivalent consensus that tablets or couch computers or casual computers are inevitably on the road ahead. We don't even agree on the aims here: Is the iPad replacing the laptop or supplementing it? The scale of the wager means that — unlike Jobs' self-professed hobby, the Apple TV — the iPad will be a site of rapid innovation over the next 24 months. Making broad statements about Apple's long-term intentions based on features that didn't ship with Version One is a fool's errand. We spent six months hyperventilating about how Apple was screwing over small developers by forcing everyone to develop Web apps, and then they launched the software-development kit and the App Store, and the iPhone turned into the biggest gold rush for small developers in the history of computing.

I suspect the folks complaining about the iPad's alleged read-only bias will look exactly like the folks who argued that Apple was screwing over developers in the spring of 2007. To argue in good faith that Jobs and Apple are not committed to user-created media is to ignore the entire first wave of Jobs' reinvention of Apple: the iPod may have turned Apple into a Wall Street icon, but it was the iMac and the whole iLife digital-hub positioning that brought the company back from the dead. During the iPad keynote, four of the most impressive (and in-depth) demos were content-creation apps: Brushes and the iWork trio. There is no doubt in my mind that some rendition of iLife will launch within a year on the iPad platform, most likely exactly one year from now, within a few minutes of Jobs showing off iPad2's mesmerizing new built-in camera.

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