iPad first impressions

So I’m a wee bit distracted. My iPad 2 arrived Monday from some factory in China where it was assembled and engraved. (Yes, I have my name and email address engraved on the back so hopefully it will return to me if it gets lost. No extra charge for the service, at least if you order it online.) My evenings have been occupied playing with the device.

Did I need an iPad? I didn’t think so. It was sort of a belated Christmas present to myself. I don’t use a cell phone enough to justify the expense of a smartphone, but I wanted to understand this whole mobile computing arena a little better. The only real choice with tablet computers was whether to use the iOS or Android operating system. If it is iOS, it meant buying an iPad. I went with Apple’s iPad because I already have an iMac, and I knew from many reviews that it wouldn’t suck. Consumer Reports liked the cheaper Samsung Galaxy Tab just as well. However, once you own an Apple product, you expect it to give you the same thrill driving a Lamborghini gives a racecar enthusiast. It’s hard to say precisely why it does this to you, but it does, and in this case it’s worth an extra $200 or so. I bought the basic version: WiFi enabled but without the pricey 3G option, and with 16GB of memory. I don’t need to constantly watch movies or listen to music, so extra memory was not worth paying for.

The iPad turns out to be an excellent product, even by Apple’s fussy standards. Not that it is perfect but it is darn near perfect. It has some oddities and quirks that I will get into, but just holding it and using it is an electric and almost reverential experience. As you use it, you cannot help but marvel just how amazing a product it is and how intelligently it is designed. Steve Jobs went to meet his maker, but arguably this last product that bears his stamp was his greatest triumph. It is just so incredibly slick.

What’s neat

  • Portrait mode. Since the iPad is eminently portable and offers a fine resolution, portrait mode is possible. It’s amazingly how much better web pages and all your applications are in portrait mode. That’s because reading in landscape, even though we should be accustomed to it, is unnatural to our eyes and brain. The eye is lazy and it wants to read down more than across. You can take in so much more content at a glance in portrait mode and do it much more easily. Of course you can move between portrait and landscape simply by turning the device sideways.
  • Maps. Map interfaces are now standard, but using the Maps application is so amazingly slick. Using finger movements to zoom in, zoom out and scroll horizontally and vertically is so much faster than using a mouse. There is no delay waiting for images. Boom: they are there. Switching from street view to satellite view puzzled me for a while, until I saw the little page drag symbol in the bottom right corner. Drag it and options appear. What a neat and intuitive way to hide and reveal options in an application! More of this in other applications please.
  • E-mail and calendar integration. It couldn’t be easier to set up my email, and information carried over to the calendar application automatically. The calendar application just looks gorgeous. It makes you want to create meetings just for the fun of using the interface. And it synchronizes transparently with my GMail calendar.
  • On/Off. I bought the optional cover for my iPad, which has magic magnets that adhere like glue and in just the right spot to its left edge. Flip the cover over the display and it turns off instantly. Pull it back and it turns on and is fully functional instantly. This is the way all computers should be and hopefully all soon will be, thanks to cheaper persistent memory.
  • Touch keyboard. It’s amazingly usable. It’s not quite as productive as using a real keyboard, but almost, providing it’s in landscape mode. You can certainly reply to email with it but until you are fully proficient typing with it, you will tend to keep your emails short. A wireless Bluetooth keyboard is available.
  • Your bathroom Internet appliance. The iPad is the perfect bathroom companion. A laptop is too cumbersome, and a smartphone has too small a screen and keyboard to be fully functional. For toting around or anyplace where space is at a premium, it is the ideal device for full and unfettered access to the Internet.

What’s not so hot

  • Extras. Apple and their app vendors want to sell you stuff. eBooks, music, video access, apps, iCloud hosting, you name it and you mostly have to buy it online through Apple’s store. So set up an Account in the Apple Store and don’t be surprised if you have a sizeable bill every month for all the content you are buying.
  • Safari only. Want to surf the web? You had best learn to like Safari, because it’s your only option. It works great, but it is quite stripped down for the iPad. The good news: few confusing options. The bad news: by keeping it simple, it is what it is. I don’t think you can add extensions, and I haven’t found a hidden menu to customize its settings.
  • Single user only. This is your personal device. It helps to think of it as a diary. Unless your life is incredibly vanilla, be aware that anyone using your iPad can act as you. You cannot set up different accounts for different people. So they can get into your email, calendar, Facebook accounts etc. with no problems. Philanderers, beware!
  • Home, End, Page Up, Page Down. Perhaps there is an easy way to get to the top and bottom of a document, probably by first invoking the touch screen keyboard, but I haven’t found it yet. There is an iPad manual (PDF) you can download with instructions that I am making my way through. The iPad aims for simplicity but in achieving that goal it seems like things you take for granted, like convenient Home and End keys, are mostly not available. Prepare to use your fingers a lot to scroll. On the plus side, scrolling is very slick. It does not come with a PDF reader, but I was able to download a free Kindle reader app and thus was able to use that to read it like a stored local file, easily jumping to content of interest. Load it into Safari and Safari will keep refetching the document every time it starts.

Technical things worth noting

  • Battery life is about seven hours of continuous use. Finally, a useful fully functional, portable Internet device. Unless you are flying to China you aren’t going to run out of juice on a flight.
  • Opening and closing applications. Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t seem to find a way to close an application. Basically Apple doesn’t want you to worry about these things. Stop worrying about these things, along with booting up and formally shutting down.

These are just some first impressions. Many of the limitations may not be limitations at all once I get to know the device better. Overall, the iPad is an immensely satisfying and amazing device. I didn’t think I needed one but now that I have one, I cannot imagine not having a tablet computer. In the future I don’t plan to take my laptop on travel, but just my iPad because it is nearly as functional at a fraction of a laptop’s weight. A rolled up Bluetooth keyboard will probably go in the backpack as well.

Thanks are not enough, Steve

It’s not news that one of the founders of Apple Computers and the visionary behind a plethora of Apple (and other) products died yesterday. Even people who don’t usually tune in real news tuned into the news of Steve Jobs’ passing. There’s a good chance when they got the news, it appeared first on their iPad, iPhone or iMac, just a few of Steve’s many inventions. (I got the news on my iMac.)

The more attached you are to Apple’s products, the more the news affected you. Part of your feelings was also the anguish that the iPad or iPhone you held in your hand may be the last cool product you would own. Unquestionably, Steve Jobs was an extraordinary inventor and creator. It will take a couple of decades for it to sink in just how greatly his life impacted humanity.

To call him the Thomas Edison of his generation is not enough. In reality he was some combination of Edison and Sir Isaac Newton. Edison’s genius was that he could figure out how to make inventions that seemed beyond our technical grasp. (He also patented many inventions that never took off.) The need for a more reliable and cleaner source of light was understood in his time. Someone just needed to figure out how to do it. That was Edison’s genius. When the Apple computer was unleashed on the world, it filled a void we never knew existed. Like Sir Isaac Newton, who discerned order behind the forces of nature, Jobs could model a usable version of the information centric age the rest of us simply could not even imagine. Jobs could do that with almost any product he invented. Jobs’ genius was pulling our inchoate needs right from our id, figuring out a way technology could fulfill them, then designing irresistible products that could realize them. But he could also turn an invention that had been done before into something everyone suddenly wanted. The iPad by all rights should have not succeeded because it had been done before. The problem was that no one had built a tablet computer so easy to use and so sexy that we would be pulled to it like a moth to a flame.

I have a particular reason to mourn Steve Jobs’ passing and to be thankful to the guy. It wasn’t because I thought Apple products were particularly cool. I am typing this on an iMac, which is pretty neat, but not all that much neater than my Windows 7 computer at work. Rather, I am grateful to Steve for the Apple 2 Plus computer that he helped create. It literally changed my life. It did not make me a wealthy man, but it did make me a well-moneyed man. In part because of Steve’s Apple 2 Plus, I changed to a career I found that I loved and which paid much, much better than my old career. I became an information technology geek.

Sometime around 1983, the management where I work purchased an Apple 2 Plus computer and put it on a table near my desk. No one really knew what to do with it, but there it was all shiny and new. It was mostly ignored, but when my work was done I’d sit down at it and start playing with it. I was not entirely new to computers, but I had never experienced a personal computer before. I had experienced a mainframe computer, which in 1975 meant tediously constructing Fortran source code using a keypunch machine, delivering a stack of cards to an operator behind a glass wall, and waiting for a couple of hours until your job was run. Invariably you made some sort of syntactical error in your code, so you’d redo the cards that were coded incorrectly, being careful not to disturb the order of the cards. And you’d go through the cycle many times until with luck your program ran correctly. You would get a printout from a wide dot-matrix printer with sprocket holes on both sides of the paper. In short, programming computers could not have been more difficult, tedious and time consuming. I got through the class but if I had an idea of doing computer programming for a living, it went away. Programming was for masochists.

The Apple 2 Plus changed that. It had a keyboard and a monitor, and it ran a computer language called BASIC that was simple enough for even a novice to pick up. More importantly, it was personal. I could use it in real-time and get immediate feedback. At the time I was using pink copies of handwritten forms to track the movement of “service requests” through the printing plant I worked at. I kept them in a binder. With the Apple 2 Plus, I figured out a way to do away track these service requests on the computer. I stored the data on five and a quarter inch floppy disks. I impressed my bosses and I recall getting an award. The award included lunch with other award winners and our director in the director’s conference room. I was onto something good.

The details of what happened since then are not important except to say I wiggled my way into a journeyman’s computer programmer slot. Since 1986, I have made my living first through computer programming and later more advanced information technology stuff. The Apple 2 Plus totally changed my life. It made computer programming fun and profitable at a time where anyone with modest computing skills could get a job. My income soared, my sense of self worth and job satisfaction went through the stratosphere and eventually I had the income to live a larger and more comfortable life I craved.

That was what the genius of Steve Jobs’ mind did for me. He gave me wealth and he gave me work that was both creative and mattered in the real world. He did it by making a computer actually personable. It was a long time between that Apple 2 Plus and my 2008 purchase of an iMac, twenty-five years in fact when I lived mostly in a Windows world. I followed the market, which were machines running MS-DOS and later Windows. However, it was inventors like Steve Jobs who made computers relevant to the masses, in fact they became must have items, which stimulated demand, drove us to email systems, and then the web, and more lately into social networks. Steve was not only a creator and inventor; he cemented us into the information age. He personally connected us with technology and each other in ways that had never been done before.

He died way too young at age 56, but he could not have died without knowing the huge impact of his life. He deserves monuments and museums, cities renamed for him and, if we ever build an American Pantheon, perhaps the biggest statue in the room. I am quite certain I will not live long enough to see the rise of another man or woman of his caliber. Quite frankly, I believe that Steve Jobs may ultimately prove to be one the most influential Americans that ever lived, ranked right next to Lincoln. Through intelligence, foresight and boundless energy, he invented a broader and more connected future for all of us.