An iPad Critique / by Brandon

Several days ago a friend asked what I thought of my iPad. I didn't answer right away, as we were communicating via instant message, and typing more than a few words on said device is a miserable process; and more than a few words are needed. The iPad is a marvelous device — but that only makes its flaws more profound. It's also a political object, an embodiment of two deep and opposed forces in Apple's corporate soul: toolmaker and marketer.

The friend was only the third person to whom I'd even admitted iPad ownership. I'm embarrassed, ashamed even, that in the middle of the Great Recession I plunked down $499 on a new toy — and did so hours after it went on sale, along with thousands of other fanboys, having spent years reading and anticipating every dribbled rumor of an Apple tablet. There was something pathetic about this, symptomatic of a certain impoverishment of the spirit, a feeling only heightened by Apple's smugly solicitous promotional campaign, which ascribed to the iPad the portentousness of Stonehenge and the usefulness of penicillin.

Yet it wasn't just toy lust. I'd anticipated the iPad because I depend for my livelihood on computer tools, and there's no finer maker of consumer tools than Apple. Foremost among these is the OS X operating system, a work of genius that left Windows behind by a full decade and turned my computer into a cognitive extension of myself, making possible a workflow that I couldn't sustain on a traditional Windows machine. Learning my job hasn't just involved refinements in writing and reporting, but in my use of computers. And a tablet-form computer would be quite useful: while traveling or taking trips in the city, I'd be able to do light work — requiring email, text documents, and web browsing, with just a few windows open rather than dozens — without carrying (and losing or damaging) my laptop. I could use it lying down, something that's just not pleasant on a laptop, and for reading long articles and perhaps books — again, unpleasant on a laptop.

Existing netbooks and handhelds are limited by clumsy software and physical form, and ebook readers useless for anything else. The iPad would fit this odd niche between laptop and handheld, utility and convenience. It would be an everyday device, which brings us to the fantastic physicality of the machine. Criticisms that it's a super-sized iPod Touch are misguided. As with a candle and a lantern, a difference of degree is also one of kind. The screen is large enough to interact easily with any single application; its resolution verges on print-like; the body itself fits comfortably in hand or on a reclining chest, almost like a book. These physical traits, along with the crisp responsiveness of applications and smooth transitions between them, are not eye candy. They're necessary interface elements, maintaining a continuity of experience that allows a tool to be what Heidegger called ready-to-hand, and scientists have since validated: the literal fusion of tool with self, its subjective experience as an extension of mind-body. While watching a video or reading a book or surfing the web, the iPad attains this.

Such success, however, makes the iPad's failures more frustrating. I wrote the original draft of this essay on a train, precisely the sort of situation for which I'd wanted an iPad; but I wrote with pen and paper, as I'd forgotten my wireless keyboard, and typing on the iPad  is an utterly miserable exercise. The on-screen keyboard, which appears when text needs to be entered and claustrophobically covers the screen's bottom half, are hypersensitive and awkwardly arranged — too far apart for hunt-and-peck, too close to type naturally. Unless one is content to type very slowly, it's difficult not to make constant errors. All punctuation other than a period, comma, question mark and exclamation point require an extra keystroke that activates a secondary keyboard screen, making them clumsy to use and further slowing typing. As a result, a keyboard-less iPad is best suited for short, code-style text messaging phrases. For anything more, it hobbles writing and therefore thinking.

Of course this is fixed by a keyboard, but it shouldn't be a problem at all. The handwriting recognition software Apple developed more than ten years ago for the Newton handheld is still the industry's most sophisticated, and the iPad is its ideal device. The absence of handwriting input defies explanation, except as a vehicle for selling keyboards or an active discouragement of writing.

Less immediately obvious but just as frustrating is the lack of a file management system. The desktop metaphor for information management has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to take for granted, and to forget how intuitive it is. The desktop metaphor also suffers from connotations of stodginess, as if categorization by arrangement had not been refined since the Stone Age, but rather invented fifty years ago by IBM bean counters. Various design theorists, including Apple, have talked of replacing the desktop metaphor. One envisioned replacement gathers all of a person's files into a single, undifferentiated pool that's accessed through "smart" searches of keywords and tags. However, unless searches are consistent and omission-free — which is not the case in OS X, where Apple implemented elements of this system* — then important information is omitted and forgotten.

Sorting by hand isn't foolproof, but it's reliable, and the process is very useful. Organizing files isn't simply a chore, but a way of coming to know and understand and ultimately control information.

On the iPad, Apple has fulfilled its desktop-destroying dream. As with OS X, smart search aspects of the infopool metaphor are used, but in tandem with program-specific file arrangement. For example, there's no way to interact with the document I'm now typing — having remembered my keyboard on a second train trip — except to access the file in the program that created it. This approach works fine in certain instances — having music and podcasts accessible only through iTunes makes sense, as I use only iTunes to play them — but for others is inadequate. Articles I write for work can involve dozens of files: interview transcripts, audio files, journal articles, web pages, notes. On the iPad, they're scattered between programs, which ultimately act as gatekeepers to my own files.

Third-party programs do provide some basic and necessary file management, but they're rudimentary compared to OS X's Finder. Moreover, there's no simple way of synchronizing folders or files between the iPad and another computer. Individual programs may do this, but — for example — my book project folder and its files can't be conveniently moved, nor can the half-dozen text files that I use every day and are crucial to my workflow. This further hobbles the iPad's use as a work device, but it's of a piece with other operating system shortcomings. Except for a few Apple programs, it's impossible to have two applications running at once; it's not at all possible to have two windows open on the same screen.

Apple has designed a wonderful tool, and shackled it. Implicit in the operating system is pressure to use the iPad not for construction or creation, but consumption — in particular,  consuming content that Apple sells, having positioned itself as a purveyor of digital music, movies, books and applications. This would be fine if Apple allowed the operating system to be substantively modified, but that's forbidden, a policy that made sense for the iPhone but here is controlling and greedy.

For years, Apple has promoted itself with heavy-handed lifestyle marketing, consultant-based hipsterism and calculated coolness, but the computers themselves were distinct from all that. Perhaps Apple was different then; perhaps citizens had different expectations for their computers. Whatever the case, marketers now seem to have the upper hand. Let's hope it doesn't stay that way.

Image: Via Jamais Cascio

* In tandem with a desktop metaphor, smart searches and folders in OS X can be tremendously useful. With one keystroke, my computer can call up all files altered in the last week, arranged chronologically — a very handy trick. And I can't imagine not having Spotlight, the instantaneous search tool.

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