Critical reflections on Apple, Inc. and its products.
I’ve never understood the love people have for Dropbox, in inverse proportion to how much they hate MobileMe iDisk. And before you say “because Dropbox is free”, Dropbox isn’t free. It provides free storage up to 2GB, but for any storage above that, the lowest price point is $99, or $9/month, for 50GB. Like many users, I need more than 2GB, but not as much as 50GB, and for that same $99, MobileMe has given me 20GB of storage, plus Find My iPhone/iPad, email, calendar etc.
That capacity enables me to store all my work documents, lecture notes, etc., in the cloud, accessible from any device, automatically synced between my home and office Macs, and updatable from iOS devices via the free iDisk app.
Now along comes iCloud. Unlike MobileMe, the sync is automatic across iOS as well as OS X (no separate app), but like Dropbox, it offers free storage (up to 5GB compared to Dropbox’ 2GB). So far, so meh. The dealbreaker for me is cloud storage of >5GB, and costing ≤$99. Pricing won’t be announced until the autumn.
Marco Arment’s latest post coincides with thoughts, as yet not fully formed, that I’ve been having about iPad usage.
Looking back over the 10 months since I got my iPad, I am astonished at how its versatility, and my usage, have exceeded even my expectations. iPad (16GB, Wifi-only) is by far my most-used computer - more than the iPhone, more than my MacBook, more than the iMac at the office. It wakes me up in the morning; thanks to Flipboard and Instapaper, it enables me to collate, curate, share and file everything from the RSS feeds for my PhD to pictures of my imaginary friends’ kids and pets; I watched major news events live, in near-HD quality; I do the bulk of my research reading on it; and I’ve written every lecture I’ve delivered this year on it. And that list represents only part of my usage.
For me, iPad is every bit as important for productivity as it is for play and what Marco terms “casual media production”. So I was rather surprised to see him pouring cold water on the idea of iPad as a productivity device. In particular, I think Marco is wrong to focus on hardware to the extent that he does. As the list above illustrates, iOS is developing, despite the wishful thinking of everyone from Jonathan Zittrain to Rupert Murdoch, into a general-purpose computing platform at least as versatile as Mac OS X. While I agree that the absence of a full-fat wordprocessing app, and of a decent blogging app (*cough* Tumblr *cough*) remain serious software shortcomings, neither is due to inherent weaknesses in either iPad or iOS. If the developer community got half as excited about my need to comment on my students’ draft chapters as it does about plain text apps, we’d have wordprocessing software on iPad that eclipses anything on the Mac.
The key to understanding the utility of iOS devices versus desktop and laptop computers is to focus, not on the hardware, but on the use case. I note the surprisingly high number of friends I speak to who have an iPad, but hardly use it. Is that because of inherent limitations in the device, or in the app ecosystem? Clearly not.
My usage may be abnormal: I am an academic, whose work involves keeping up to date with an enormous amount of (mostly) written material. It is far more comfortable and productive for me to read all that stuff on the sofa, rather than at a desk. I have the privilege of being able to work from home a lot. On campus, I have the benefit of the university-wide wifi network and standardised AV facilities in every teaching space. I hate using paper, partly because of the dreadful printing facilities at the office, partly because of my inability to keep track of paper documents which I might need at any time, and in any location. And I value the ability to keep my data synced between my iOS devices, the home Macbook and the office iMac. So yes, I am probably atypically suited to the iPad.
But that’s my point: the clue to the utility of the device is not in the device itself, but in the social, work, domestic, temporal and spatial environment of its users. To look elsewhere, as Marco seems to have done in his post, is to lapse into a technological determinism which he, as a UI genius, typically avoids.
“I still don’t think Apple has found the sweet spot for the iPad’s usage: the ideal role it fills in personal computing. And I don’t think we, as developers or iPad owners, have found it, either.”
Marco fails to offer any evidence for his argument, and so do I. But when I have the time, I’ll try to dig up some proper research on iPad usage. In the meantime, I would argue that there is no “sweet spot”. With the iPad, the sweet spot is everywhere.
Steve Jobs assured his audience at yesterday’s music event that he and his Apple colleagues love music. Somehow, he thought the presence of Chris Martin from Coldplay would be taken as evidence of that love. But an initial look at the new iteration of iTunes leaves me even less convinced that Jobs even listens to music, much less likes it.
The biggest let-down is Ping, the much-touted “social network for music”. Of course there are many social networks for music, such as last.fm, which use real-time logging of one’s listening and recommendation engines to point users towards music they might like. Last.fm was how I first heard The Brian Jonestown Massacre, after all.
Ping is a pitiful creature by comparison, crippled by design indeed. Contrary to Apple’s claims, it doesn’t allow users to share what they are listening to, but merely their interactions with the iTunes Store. You share details of what you buy, what you rate and what you review. It’s like comparing receipts with your friends. Yay, social. And whoever came up with that nails-down-a-blackboard name should be shot.
Some of the other new features, like wireless streaming to any device, are either dependent on new software, like the imminent iOS 4.1 update, or hardware, like the new, lightweight Apple TV. Other than that, iTunes 10 enjoys the usual incremental prettying-up that accompanies every update, and that’s about it.
For years, people have been criticising iTunes for its bloat, clunk and general ugliness. Like Finder, it’s a program in desperate need of replacement by a simpler, faster alternative. And like Finder, it’s a program that we use because we have to, not because we want to.