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

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Speaking of said camera — yes, I was disappointed that the iPad did not launch with one. But I think there's a very good case that it was worth it to ditch the camera to get to the $499 price point. The value of that number shouldn't be underestimated; everyone loves to bash Apple for its pricing hubris (particularly on hyped products like the iPad where you know they could effectively price it like an Aston Martin for the first month and still have lines at the Apple Store). But among all the complaints about the iPad launch, you didn't hear much griping about the price.

Overhyped products are going to disappoint. That's the Faustian bargain of overhyping in the first place. What I object to is the prognosticating: because Apple didn't include some crucial feature, the future of computing may well be threatened by some ominous trend. At least when you base those prophesies on a shipping product, you have an anchor to ground your speculations. But when you point out that Apple didn't include olfactory sensors in the initial iPad, and thus has fatally condemned us to a future of smell-impaired computing, you run the very real risk that Apple will launch a Sniffer app the next week and render all your theories obsolete.

I do not intend this as a critique of squeaky wheels. If there's something you think the iPad needs, by all means ask for it in public. I would like a redesigned home screen and a video camera, thank you very much. But there's a difference between feature requests and trend-forecasting. Maybe, somehow, it hadn't occurred to Apple that the iPhone would be a generative and lucrative developer platform, and all those outraged blog posts convinced them that it was worth doing. But I doubt it.

Ironically, this is one of those areas where Apple's legendary secrecy, which is largely responsible for the iPad hype in the first place, ends up hurting the company. A normal tech company would be trotting out advanced prototypes of the 2014 iPad, featuring its 3-D video camera, and thus silencing all the critics who might otherwise claim that the company just doesn't get video, or the 3-D revolution. But Apple doesn't talk very much about the future. Presumably, this is because it's too busy inventing it.

But Apple doesn't get a pass when it comes to Flash support, multitasking and the App Store. Apple now has three years of history with the iPhone platform's ignoring Flash, forcing users to do one thing at a time and channeling all their developers through a single cash register. These do not seem like decisions that happen because you've got to announce a product next week at a certain price point and thus some things have to be cut. They seem like a long-term strategy, like they have principles behind them.

The problem is the principles that Apple has formally announced make no sense on the iPad platform. You could at least make a plausible case that Flash and multitasking were too resource-intensive (and thus battery-draining) for mobile-phone usage, just as you could make the case that a phone operating system needed more security scrutiny for third-party apps. But these arguments no longer make sense when you're talking about a computing platform with 10 hours of battery life, a blisteringly fast CPU and ambitions to replace your laptop. It's fine for Apple to be secretive when it talks about the future of its products. But when Apple talks about the present this way, it just sounds like Pravda.

Fanboy that I am, I am genuinely interested to hear Apple's arguments on these issues. Maybe they truly believe multitasking has been a 15-year wrong turn, and that user interfaces need to revert back to one app at a time now that the apps load instantaneously. Maybe they think closed distribution environments generate more innovation in the long run than open ones. (They have two years of data on their side on that one, thanks to the incredible run the App Store has been on.) I'm not sure I agree with those arguments, but I'd be fascinated to hear more about them.

Several times in recent years, Jobs has published an open letter explaining some increasingly controversial part of Apple's business or his personal life. He wrote notes explaining Apple's environmental policies, revealing their plans for a native SDK for the iPhone and addressing the concerns about his health. Each note led, directly or indirectly, to a major, and positive, shift in the public perception of the issue in question. Maybe it's time for another letter.

Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention of Air, and the co-founder of the hyper-local news platform He's @stevenbjohnson on Twitter.

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