Apple Life at Seven Months

One of the momentous events in the way I live and work happened this past spring when I joined the Appleverse,* buying an iPad and a MacBook Air (13.3″, with an SSD) within a month. At the time, I was lukewarm about Apple’s app-based approach to computing — not because I didn’t think it would work, but because I didn’t think it was the best thing for the world.

Seven months on, I love my Mac (and am trying to convince my wife to buy one, too), but I still have mixed feelings about the iPad. I bought it so I could watch Gossip Girl on the Washington Metro, and for that use case it’s just about perfect. But overall it feels like a massive exercise in tradeoffs.

There are some great things about the iPad that I did not predict and that could mean it (and devices like it) will take over the world some day. It is simply so much more portable and physically comfortable to use than a laptop that it has become our main casual browsing device in most of the house; my laptop spends 95 percent of its time on my desk tethered to my big monitor, even though it only weighs five pounds or so. You can use an iPad in almost any position in almost any chair in your house, and Steve Jobs is right — it is a much more natural way to interact with a computer.

But as far as I can tell, there are only two things it does really well: play videos when you are commuting (say, in the Washington Metro) and play games (Angry Birds!), many of which are better with touch than a keyboard or a controller. Everything else is some combination of frustrating and unsatisfying after you do it for a few minutes. You can read books on it, but it’s too heavy to read in bed (as opposed to my wife’s beloved Kindle). It plays audio, but the speaker’s not loud enough if you’re, say, cooking; you could plug it into bigger speakers, but that begins to defeat the point. You can watch video on it if you’re alone, but it’s not as comfortable as a regular TV. You can sort of do work on it, but the input just becomes frustrating after a (short) while. (Why oh why does Steve Jobs hate arrow keys?) Perhaps most importantly, the browser just sucks. I mean, it’s good for a tablet, but compared to a computer it’s so crippled it becomes unusable. I was recently browsing a lot of travel sites for a vacation, and not only is there the famous missing Flash problem, but many high-end websites are just too rich and interactive for the iPad’s browser to handle adequately. Even on simple sites the browser just renders too slowly.

Sure, most of these problems can be fixed (except the lousy text input). But at the same time, tablets face competition from phones, and for some important functions my Android phone is faster and easier to use than my iPad — like checking email, in particular.

I’m also still not convinced by the app model of computing. I think I have a better idea now of why it’s popular. There’s nothing you can do with an app that you couldn’t do with an old-style “application” — which makes sense, since an app is just a rebranded application with a different delivery system. But it’s the delivery system that matters. Even though there’s a near-infinite amount of software available for a Windows PC, the majority of people probably install nothing on their computers that isn’t there when they buy them, while apps are somehow cute and fun, so people think of their iPhones and iPads as these great multipurpose devices. But still, the large majority of apps don’t do anything that couldn’t be done within a web page (many apps have a computer version — which is a web page), and the app model is a lot clunkier than the web-based browser model, where you simply navigate between web sites. So I still think that Apple is pushing us into a computing model where we have to pay money (fortunately, relatively small amounts of money) for functionality that isn’t as good as we could get on the web. And I am looking forward to the day when Android tablets will catch up to the iPad — which is probably still at least a year away.

* Rejoined, actually; I had an original Mac from 1984 to 1993, and then a PowerBook Duo from 1993 until 1996 or so, but then I joined the PC-dominated corporate ranks.