Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Apple's iPad: An overhyped, underwhelming gadget that's defective by design

So the big, breathlessly announced news in the technology industry this week is that Apple is going to sell a tablet computer called the iPad, which will basically be a supersized version of the iPhone with a stunningly cool interface that we're all going to want to buy. At least that's what the traditional media has been implying.

I see both the forthcoming iPad and the coverage of the launch of said device to be deeply flawed. Some tech pundits (or should I say Apple fanboys?) are acting as if Apple has just revolutionized computing by introducing the tablet. In actuality, the iPad is not even Apple's first tablet, let alone the first tablet computer.

Admittedly, tablets have never really taken off, but why are people assuming that this device will automatically be popular?

Because Apple is selling it? Come on.

It's true the iPod and iPhone were hits, but Apple has had plenty of duds throughout its history. If all the products Apple has previously introduced had been as successful as the iPhone, Microsoft as we know it today wouldn't exist.

Odds are, the iPad won't be a total flop. But nor is it likely to sell as well as the iPhone. The iPhone is appealing because it packs a lot of power in a small form factor. It's small enough to be carried around in a pocket. It can take photos, play music, make calls, check email, browse the Web... and permit a user to do an infinite number of other useful things while on the go. (Of course, so can Research in Motion's BlackBerry devices, which continue to outsell the iPhone).

The iPad is basically just a bigger touchscreen, minus the camera, which will sell at a higher price point than the iPhone. A price point that many believe is too high:
"Maybe you live in a different America. There is 15% real unemployment, taxes keep getting higher, home equity has evaporated," said Robert Kotick, chief executive of videogame maker Activision Blizzard Inc. "Five hundred bucks is a lot of money. You should get out more."
What's more, five hundred bucks is only half the cost of a MacBook, and a hundred dollars less than a Mac mini. For the price of two iPads, a user can get a fully functional computer that isn't much bigger and can do a whole lot more.

The iPad's deficiencies go beyond the lack of a camera. The device can't multitask. It doesn't have HDMI output, which means it can't be easily hooked up to a flat screen television. Adapters will be required to hook up USB devices and SD cards. Adobe Flash won't be installed or supported, so forget about watching embedded video on websites. It's mostly incompatible with T-Mobile's network, meaning AT&T is the only choice iPad users have for cellular connectivity. The 4:3 screen ratio means films presented in widescreen won't look so great.

And, like the iPhone, the iPad will lack a removable battery. No, I'm not kidding. (This particular deficiency is one of the reasons I own a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone. If my BlackBerry becomes unresponsive, I can force it to reboot by removing the battery. I can also drop in a replacement battery if I need power and can't recharge the original).

But all of these drawbacks pale in comparison to a bigger, more overarching flaw: the iPad's proprietary design. The Free Software Foundation explains:
DRM [Digital Restrictions Management] is used by Apple to restrict users' freedom in a variety of ways, including blocking installation of software that comes from anywhere except the official Application Store, and regulating every use of movies downloaded from iTunes. Apple furthermore claims that circumventing these restrictions is a criminal offense, even for purposes that are permitted by copyright law.
Remember when Amazon pulled copies of George Orwell's 1984 that users had downloaded onto their Kindles? That fiasco made it painfully clear that the Kindle had been engineered to be under Amazon's control, not the user's. The iPad will likewise be under Apple's control.

People who buy iPads will essentially be purchasing a slick slab of plastic, glass, and metal, and simultaneously gaining the ability to rent Apple's software, which won't permit the installation of applications that have not been approved by Apple.

Let me rephrase that: If you buy an iPad, you will only be allowed to install applications that somebody in Cupertino has decided are okay for you to use, as is the case with the iPhone. (Which, incidentally, is yet another reason I own a BlackBerry: I can freely download and install applications that are compatible with my phone, even if Research in Motion hasn't signed off on them).

I think Leo Laporte is right when he suggests the iPad should be considered an "appliance", not a computer. The iPad has been designed to allow America's media conglomerates - movie studios, record labels, and publishing houses - to make money off of us while restricting our rights.

I have no interest in participating in that swindle.

Seriously: Why should I pay to watch, read, or listen to rented content on rented software? I'd rather just buy a book to add to my library shelf, or buy a CD (which I can then use to rip the tracks to my computer in a free format like Vorbis.)

The iPad to me is an overhyped, underwhelming gadget that's defective by design. If I had five hundred bucks to spend on a cross between a smartphone and a laptop, I'd rather get a nice, well-engineered netbook running Ubuntu, which wouldn't restrict my digital freedom.


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