Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

“Magical and revolutionary” – Does Apple’s iPad live up to its hype?

Posted by Jock Coats on November 22nd, 2010

Here’s a little review I wrote for the Learning Resources Newsletter:

It appears that the now six month or so old Apple iPad has quickly become a “Marmite” device: one you will either love or hate.  Having had one of the most basic models to evaluate for a few months now I fall firmly in the “love” camp.

When Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, introduced this sleek, flat, touchscreen tablet to the world back in January, he described it as “magical and revolutionary”.  I wouldn’t go so heavy on the supernatural, but I certainly think that it is revolutionary: potentially the beginning of a whole new model of computing and information transmission and retrieval.

Some will tell you that it’s “just a big iPhone”; others that it’s “only half a laptop”: and they’d both be right, as far as it goes.  Even as an enthusiastic user of all kinds of applications on my own iPhone it is too small to be usable for anything other than short bursts; and a laptop with as large and clear a screen area as the iPad is still quite a bulky object that will likely come with a bag, power cable, a fold down the middle which makes its centre of gravity such that you really need to use it on a flat stable surface, uses multiple input devices like the mouse/trackpad and the keyboard making it difficult to use one handed even if you could hold it easily with the other.

The iPad, by contrast, is a one handed device, on which you are manipulating objects directly on the screen with your fingers – no looking out for the mouse pointer and so on.  In wide screen mode it gives an onscreen keyboard that is basically the same size as a full sized laptop keyboard that is very comfortable to touch type with while the machine is propped on one knee – where your typing maintains the balance of the machine very naturally – or perched on the edge of a lecture theatre note taking table.  Even though laptop manufacturers have been looking for this “holy grail” for years, the iPad is truly instant-on when you just need to look something up in a hurry standing up, wherever you are.

So far so good, but is it a corporate machine, or a personal toy?  Well, of course, Apple want to sell as many of these as they can.  Marketing is definitely aimed at the personal “gadgeteer” market so far.  But these are the people who will get one, and then want to see what they can do with it at work.  They’re the ones who will want to show off that they don’t need to take a paper notepad to a meeting, nor screen themselves off from other participants by furiously typing away behind their laptop screen.

And we are seeing a trickle of people within Brookes asking us to get them one:  the Vice-Chancellor is already using one; the University Alliance are going to impress in important meetings with several; and others are talking about using them to replace the mountain of university committee paperwork.  When you want to go to a meeting, or a lecture, would you take your entire collection of ring-binders, the back of a fag packet, or a convenient pad of paper and a pen.  The iPad is the latter.

But they are difficult to support, at the moment, as corporate devices.  There are, literally, hundreds of thousands of “Apps” (as in “there’s an App for that”) available for them, so you will find dozens of tools, some better than others, for doing any particular task.  And it is difficult (make that impossible at the moment other than by some kind of promise on the part of the user) to enforce a standard set of Apps for instance to ensure that everyone is reading their committee papers the same way, say.

Apps are not generally expensive – even Apple’s own cut down versions of their iWork MS-Office competitor suite are only a fiver each, and most probably come in at between 59 pence and a fiver, just as with the iPhone (indeed many Apps simply transfer from one to the other without additional cost if you already have some favourites on your iPhone).  But there’s no way, again, of making a corporate purchase and installing something on everyone’s in the same way we support desktop or laptop PCs – each owner would need an Apple AppStore account and possibly some new mechanism of claiming expenditure on your iPad back if it were for corporate use.  But I have certainly not found any task that I have wanted to do so far for which I cannot find a passable App, and if the iPhone App-store is anything to go by, the range available will only increase.

But as more and more corporate data type applications are made available through the web (Web 2.0 and beyond) these devices will come into their own.  If you don’t need to type so much to get an answer – if you literally point at a field and select some value – why carry around the additional, and redundant, keyboard of a laptop to do so?

And in an educational environment, I can see these or their near competitors (which I hope we will also get a chance to evaluate), being used for collaborative group work – rather than everyone crowding around a PC keyboard for example – for instantaneously passing learning resources around a room without people having to stop and boot up their laptops or whatever and for giving quick, easy, one handed access to knowledge from wherever you happen to be when you think of it.

So, there are considerable hurdles to contend with in making the iPad a really useful corporate device.  Questions remain for example, about data encryption, which is pretty well a deal breaker for anyone wanting to use corporate data on a machine not tied down to a desk, and the management of the machines to any kind of corporate standard.  But unlike some others, I do think this is a revolutionary type of product and that the iPad and its competitors will usher in a very different way of viewing ubiquitous, instant information in the years to come.