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iPad Developers Figuring out Device that is Neither Netbook or Smartphone

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The iPad went on sale in the United States on April 3. Eighty days later, Apple had sold more than 3 million of the devices. With that kind of success, it's now hard to believe that some of the earliest buzz about Apple's tablet PC concerned the name's resemblance to a female sanitary product.

"Of all the names that Apple had reportedly secured--Apple Tablet, iTablet, Magic Slate, iSlate--I think it's safe to say that no one truly believed that Apple would name their newest product the iPad. Especially women," wrote Alissa Walker in Fast Company. And so came the jokes, from the Web to television until, a few months later when the device shipped and the iPad "just flew off the shelves." Apple had gotten the last laugh. In its press announcement, the company claimed that, despite its family history (see sidebar), the iPad represented a new product category. That bold assertion appears to be true. As with any new product category, users and developers alike are still figuring out what the iPad is capable of, and until they do, the device's long-term potential remains to be seen. New York Times columnist David Pogue captured the market confusion by writing a double review: a skeptical one for techies ("If youve already got a laptop and a smartphone, whos going to carry around a third machine?") and an enthusiastic review for everyone else ("The simple act of making the multitouch screen bigger changes the whole experience").

"Until people actually got their hands on an iPad, they didn't know what to make of it--so they just made fun of it," said Anne Cutler, a San Francisco Bay Area graphic designer and photographer, whose resume includes designing CD covers for Grateful Dead Records. Cutler had been reading about the device for weeks, knew for sure she wanted one, even if she wasn't sure why. She would figure that out later. Cutler has been a Mac user since the earliest days of the Apple and used both an iMac desktop machine and Powerbook laptop for her business. "The first thing I did after using the iPad for a while was to give away the Powerbook." With its near-instant access to the Internet, its touchscreen and tactile user interface, the iPad turned out to be a friendlier place to browse through her email.

Cutler then looked at sketching programs, including her current favorite, Qvik Sketch. "I had been painting on canvas, and the iPad is like having a little canvas on your lap." Following the instructions in a YouTube-posted video, she made her own stylus. The sample she showed me, an abstract design, looked as if she had created it with chalk. The program, she said, can produce textures that respond to style movements as if they were a physical medium. "It can make even a doodle look good." An amateur but serious guitarist, Cutler then discovered the Harmonic Ear Training program (J. M. Lay Music) which helps people distinguish musical chords, and Saitara Software's AC-7, a wireless remote interface for music production software like Logic Pro. Cutler was unaware of either program until she surfed the iPad App Store. She's still surfing. "It seems that every few weeks, my usage pattern changes," she said.

All of these programs began as iPhone apps, the iPad's larger screen size gives certain kinds applications the kind of "elbow room" they need to flourish. Certain kinds of applications, but not all of them. Like most iPad users and reviewers, Cutler found touch typing on the iPad's onscreen keyboard to be, at best, an acquired skill--and so while she may read her emails on the iPad, she does her serious business-related correspondence back on the iMac, as well as her professional graphics. The iPad is a companion, but it is by-and-large not her workplace.

Content creation is not where the iPad shines. Nobody would claim the device will suffice for the kind of work that is done on two adjacent 60-centimeter screens. Nor does the iPad shine in highly portable applications of the kind best suited for iPhone and Android smartphones. The iPad, as well as the competing devices that will soon be on the market, do indeed represent a new product category, and developers now have plenty of opportunities to figure out what that means.

"Zero separation"

To get a heads-up on what's possible in iPad development, I spoke with the authors of two books on the subject. Wei-Meng Lee wrote Beginning iPad Application Development (Wrox, 2010) as well as books on C#, .NET, and iPhone development. His company, Developer Learning Solutions, is in Singapore. Neal Goldstein co-authored the iPad Application Development for Dummies (Wiley, 2010) with Tony Bove. He has also written books on iPhone and Objective C development, also for the "for Dummies" series, and was senior vice president of advanced technology and the chief architect at the investment services firm, Charles Schwab.

In both conversations, I started with the obvious: what is it about the iPad from a developer's standpoint that makes it unique--especially compared with two of its closest counterparts, the iPhone and the netbook.

"Its a new kind of device," said Goldstein, whose now reads his email and accesses his calendar from his iPad, even though the device often sits right next to his computer--which of course can provide the same information. "I find that going through email on the iPad is much more pleasant than on my Mac: it's more fun and immediate to flick through the emails than to scroll through them." Unlike with a conventional computer with its keyboard and mouse, Goldstein said, there is "zero separation" between you and the device. "The interface is immediate, it's right there, its very intimate." You can scroll through information and zoom with fingers. You can re-orient the screen image by rotating the device in your hands. You can undo screen entries by shaking it (though this idea would seem to make better sense on an iPhone than an iPad).

Goldstein notes that the newer SDK versions have made more gesture recognizers available to developers, enabling them to use them "the same way that Apple uses them. Before, you had to write your own code to do that. Apple is going deeper here, saying that we really believe that the multi-touch gesture-based interface is something special to the device and the device experience. Its not an add-on, and its not something we had to do because there is no keyboard available. Rather, these gestures are an important part of the device experience."

The larger screen size compared with the iPhone also changes the way applications can be presented. "For example, in an iPhone application, the screen provides the navigation, then you might go to some content, which may then take you to back to navigation. With the iPad you can mix the two―part of the screen can be devoted to navigation, another part to content."But the quality of that content matters. While Apple has touted the idea that an iPhone application can simply be ported over to the iPad and enlarged, neither author believes it. "With graphics and pictures, you dont just want to blow it up to two times the size, Goldstein said. "You want to be able to take advantage of the real estate by displaying more information. A screen that had to be scrolled on an iPhone might, on the iPad, be displayable all at one time."

Goldstein adds that, with Wifi, the iPad is clearly a wireless device, but it is not necessarily a mobile device. The difference is partly a matter of size--you can slip an iPhone in your pocket, whereas an iPad must go in a purse, pack or briefcase. But the more subtle difference is that developers can not assume that iPads will always be connected--because 3G is an option, not a feature. "I have 3G on mine because I use it when I travel, but a lot of people will just use it at home, with no assumption that they'll be connected beyond that."

Wei-Meng Lee said that Apple's original plan was that the iPad would support the thousands of iPhone apps out of the box. "But as many developers are realizing, running an iPhone app on the iPad is really not a good experience. So they are now redesigning iPhone apps for the iPad." It's a misconception, Lee said, to think of the iPad as just just a glorified iPod Touch--a device that include most iPhone features, except for the phone and camera. "But even though the iPad looks very similar, its larger screen means that there are tons of things that you can do that give you much more design flexibility. For example, not every view window must occupy the entire screen. And you can redesign the user interface so that more components are visible." Lee is emphatic about this. "If you are transitioning from the iPod Touch/iPhone over to the iPad, the main consideration is the UI, UI, UI, and UI."

Another common confusion, Lee said, concerns the iPad's relationship to netbooks. At first glance, the differences seem like deficits--especially the lack of a built-in physical keyboard, without which, most people can't type quickly. "The moment you think about the iPad as a netbook is the moment that you should stop thinking about buying an iPad--and buy a netbook instead. The iPad is basically an 'infotainment' device where you have the luxury of information at your fingertips. The iPad is good for reading newspapers, reading books, and in some particular industries like hospitals where the nurses and doctors can have access to the patients’ records at their fingertips. I think that this is the kind of market where the iPad really works."

Goldstein agrees with the netbook's limitations as an information device. "As I wrote in my iPhone book, if you are landing, say, in Heathrow, the iPhone will let you catch up on your email, check your calendar, and help you find your way to your hotel. Of course you could do the same thing on a 3G-connected laptop, but that means taking out your laptop, powering it up, and finding some space to maneuver. Whereas an iPhone application makes it easy to flick through with one hand as you are standing in line for customs. The joke is that the least used application on the iPhone is the phone." The less portable iPad, Goldstein argues, has comparable advantages over a laptop when you are working at home.

Developer opportunities

As to the kinds of applications developers should build, the verdict is out. "There are 250,000 apps out there, so its hard to believe theres not already an app out there for everything," Goldstein said. "One possible opportunity is high quality content." The Wall Street Journal, one of the few newspapers to charge for its Web content, is rumored to have sold more than $2 million to advertisers for its initial iPad application launch. The U.S. publishing industry in general has looked to the device as a new opportunity for making money on its content, either by charging or advertising. That hope springs eternal, and we will see.

Lee sees opportunity for app developers in vertical markets. A chunk of his consulting work is in the Singapore education sector where, for the past few years, he's seen steady demand for Windows Mobile and zero demand for the Apple. That all changed when the iPhone hit the market. "Almost overnight, everybody was wanting iPhone training. It was magical―overnight everybody seemed to be buying Macs, getting iPhones and iPod Touches. From what used to be strictly a Microsoft-friendly market, everybody seems to be jumping on the Apple bandwagon." Lee thinks the trend will carry through to the iPad. "I have talked to a school here in Singapore who, at this moment, are giving out iPod Touches to 500 students. Next year, they will give out iPads, instead." Lee sees other vertical opportunities in jobs where people need timely information in the field: insurance adjusters, real estate assessors, nurses and doctors. Of course, mobile devices are already available for all of these sectors. The question is: can developers create applications on the iPad that are friendlier and more efficient. The weight and size of the current generation of iPads will also be a factor, but if Apple's release history is any indicator, lighter, faster, clearer iPads are already on the drawing board.

"Lock yourself in a room"

For Web designers, there are two paths to iPad development. You can adapt your website to the iPad or apply your skills toward creating iPad apps. Lee said the first goal is generally no problem: most websites display seamlessly on the iPad. The one exception has to do with Apple's lack of support for Flash. "In that case, you really need to understand HTML5."

For application development, a knowledge of Objective C is mandatory, just as it is with iPhone development. "For people coming from a Web background, they are probably already familiar with with Flash, HTML, and JavaScript," Lee said. "If they also have a good understanding of classes, objects, properties and methods, they should be able to pick up Objective C very quickly." Lee's book includes an appendix to help get readers started in the language. He suggests developers new to Objective C begin there first, before the 'hello world' example in Chapter 1. "People always ask me what is the best way to learn iPad programming. My answer is to lock yourself in your room for two weeks with food and water. After two weeks, provided you are still alive, you will be an Objective C programmer."

The other piece of the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch/ development puzzle is the SDK, which supports all three devices and is free for the downloading from Apple. "You really need to dive into it," Goldstein said. When Goldstein published his first book on iPhone development, "the SDK was medium wide and not too deep ― you could write a book that described most of it: enough to write an app. Now there are more and more features, and the features themselves go deeper and deeper, which means that developers will have to have to pay attention to all of the things that Apple is providing." Gesture recognition is a good example. The* they?* present a developer opportunity even if you are writing a simple app." Goldstein said that some of the iPhone 4's capabilities are a good indicator of what's coming on the iPad, such as support for the three-axis gyroscope.

"For application developers, this is the best time to be alive--there's a big opportunity out there," said Lee. "Here in Singapore, I am seeing that the demand is outstripping supply: the industry is not producing developers fast enough. My suggestion is that if you are a beginning developer, the iPhone and iPad represent a really a good platform to get started on--and the App Store remains a good avenue to consider."

Shidebar: The iPad's Ancestors

The iPad may represent a new product category, but it did not come out of nowhere. Indeed, 20 years have passed since the introduction of the GridPad, the first commercial tablet, and 17 years since Apple introduced a less successful tablet device, the Newton. To get a better idea of the iPad's origins, I spoke with Marc Weber, a curator at the Computer History Museum in California's Silicon Valley, where he oversees the Internet History Program.

In Weber's history, designer dreams often outpaced actual products. That was the case in back 1968 when, two years before he joined Xerox PARC, Alan Kay proposed a pad-shaped device called the Dynabook. Kay was interested in creating a computing device for children, and his design combined a tablet computer with a keyboard. "Think of a laptop but without the hinge," says Weber. "The screen and the keyboard are on the same plane, and you can both type and use a pen." The Dynabook would also be wirelessly networked, an idea considerably ahead of its time: the Internets ancestor, the ARPAnet, wouldnt even be switched on until the following year. And of course, CPU power, display technology, and memory capacities were all in their infant stages. None of this really mattered: the Dynabook would remain a concept, not a product.

Fifteen years later, an actual working tablet-like device came on the market. The Kyocera Kyotronic 85 (sold in the U.S. by Tandy as the TRS-80 Model 100) enjoyed some popularity, especially among reporters. "The screen could only show a few lines, but the devices were cheap and reliable, light enough that you could take them anywhere, and would run for many hours on a couple of off-the-shelf batteries," Weber recalled. "Theres no current word for the product category: I jokingly called them 'flattops.'"

The Kyotronic offered users only a keyboard, not a pen or touchscreen with handwriting recognition. That would come with the Linus Write Top. That machine led to what Weber calls the "pen-based bubble" of the 1980s--which banked on the fact that many people, including executives, didn't know how to type. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but pen-based computing was not enough to sell the devices. Marketing challenges included the lack of a killer application, comparatively high cost and slow speed compared with other mobile devices, and poor handwriting recognition. "A billion dollars was sunk into the idea that pen-based computing would take over. One of the most notable failures was Go Corporation," Weber says. "They got huge investments in 1988 and finally produced the EO Personal Communicator." AT&T, which acquired GO, finally introduced the device in 1993, abandoning it 15 months later.

The other pen computing device struggling for a market was the Apple Newton, which became known as the first personal digital assistant, or PDA, a term coined by then Apple CEO John Sculley. The problem was not processor speeds, memory or screen size, but user acceptance of a book-size device. “While handheld computers and laptops established markets, the tablet remained an awkward in-between size. Many of the early tablets ended up as solutions in search of problems. The Apple's Newton was perhaps the most spectacular tablet failure ever, making the iPads success even more remarkable,” says Weber.

Again, dreams outpaced the technology. In a 1987 video (still available on YouTube) entitled “Knowledge Navigator," Apple imagined a more intelligent version of the PDA featuring an animated, bow-tie-wearing assistant capable of having HAL-like conversations. "Let me see the lecture notes from last semester," says a professor, and the material fills the double-screen device. The professor asks the assistant to call a colleague. The assistant can't reach her and leaves a message. As the video goes on, this man-machine interaction gets ever more complex, and ever less realistic, even by early 21st century standards. It was a fanciful exercise, but not the best way to set realistic customer expectations about a device capable of far less.

In 1989, Jeff Hawkins, then vice president of research for GRiD systems, developed the GRiDPad, which Weber calls the first commercially successful tablet--succeeding not in the consumer market, but in vertical markets. Hawkins went on to co-found Palm, Inc., whose stripped-down Palm Pilot PDA succeeded where the EO and Newton had not. One big difference was the Palms more modest aspirations. “The Palm was designed to complement a PC, not to replace it,” Weber says. The Palm architecture became the basis for the Palm Treo, which, along with Japans i-mode, was one of the first successful “smartphones―combining voice and PDA functions.

Smartphones reached a new level with the iPhone, which in turn led directly to the iPad. Weber says this direction of development matters. "With the iPad, Apple has scaled up from a smartphone rather than scaling down from a laptop. That's significant because the iPhone is what finally convinced people that, yes, you really can use/have a computer in your pocket. Apple has capitalized on the iPhone's strong following to make the iPad a success, and I'm not sure that anyone else could have done it. Apple's brilliance was to get people hooked on a phone-based platform and then get them interested in a device that's just a bit larger."

Note to readers:
Curator Marc Weber is developing the networking and mobile galleries of an ambitious new exhibition on "the first 2000 years" of computing history, which will open later in 2010 at the Computer History Museum. That history, of course, includes substantial contributions from Japan--and Weber would like your thoughts on the Japanese companies, people and technology that should be highlighted in this and future exhibitions. He can be reached at marc@webhistory.org


Bart Eisenberg

Bart Eisenberg's articles on the trends and technologies of the American computer industry have appeared in Gijutsu-Hyoron publications since the late 1980s. He has covered and consulted for both startups and the major corporations that make up the Silicon Valley. A native of Los Angeles and a self-confessed gadget freak, he lives with his wife Susan in Marin County, north of San Francisco. When not there, he can sometimes be found hiking with a GPS in the Sierra, traveling in India, driving his Toyota subcompact down the California coast, or on the streets of New York and Tokyo.


1980年代後半より,『Software Design』や『Web Site Expert』などの雑誌に,アメリカのコンピュータ業界のトレンドと技術に関するレポートを執筆しています。シリコンバレーで,スタートアップ企業から大企業まで幅広い分野でコンサルタントを務めました。

ロサンゼルス生まれで,自称ガジェットフリークです.現在,妻のSusanとともに,サンフランシスコ北部のMarin County在住。また,SierraのGPSを携えてハイキングしたり,インドを旅したり,カリフォルニア海岸をドライブしたり,NYや東京の街中を歩いたりしています。