Cometh the iPad, cometh the consumer

DigitalOrigins acquired its first iPad last week and I had a chance to be Mr Consumer and spend much of the weekend delving into its nooks and crannies, getting a feel for what the fuss is all about.

First off, when someone says the iPad doesn’t feel like a first-gen product, they’re absolutely right; the weight, size and feel, of it are all absolutely spot on. The screen is fantastic, the buttons do their jobs, the battery life is all kinds of good and, contrary to many people’s experiences, I’ve had zero issues with the wifi connection.

So all good then?

Not quite. Because when we talk about the “product” here, we’re really only talking about the hardware, and lovely though it is, it only makes up half of the overall experience. The other half, the software, currently has a bit of catching up to do.

First off, many of the products people use on their iphone and/or laptop either don’t exist in iPad form yet, or are in various states of Beta, and for “Beta”, see “Unstable”.

In addition, iBooks, arguably one of the iPad’s killer apps, is, well, sometimes a bit of a pain. The interface is a joy to behold to be sure, but when you start delving behind the scenes trying to manage an actual book library (as opposed to individual books), things get a little wobbly. Right now my collection of epub documents are languishing somewhere on my external harddrive bunched in with Leo Sayer and Michael Jackson, each being treated as just another music file by iTunes, Artist and Track Numbers included. Not a huge problem for sure, but I’m a bit troubled by what I’ll have to do when I want to update some of those documents with newer versions. I foresee many consumers living with multiple copies of documents in iTunes and on their hard drives simply because they can’t find the location of the original. Oh, and, at least for the time being anyway, don’t try to add too many documents to iBooks; when I say that iBooks takes longer to boot to the bookshelf the more documents synched, I’m not exaggerating.

Easily-fixable niggles aside, the thing that surprised me the most, and one that may not be so easily dealt with, is the realisation that I don’t actually want to use the iPad as a “consumption” device as first anticipated, but as a “consume-and-share” device. Unfortunately, right now, this is a bit of a problem.

To illustrate why, consider my typical laptop-based consumption loop: first thing in the morning I’ll grab the laptop and head to Google Reader to go through my RSS feeds. I’ll scroll smartly down, moving swiftly past each item, letting Reader mark them as “read” as they go off the screen (I am the bearer of far too many RSS feeds, so the more efficient this process the better). As I come across interesting articles, I may copy the link into MarsEdit for a future blog article, I may copy the link into a Twitter post, or I may just save the article in a separate browser tab to go back to at a later date.

On the iPad, right now, Google Reader is a real dog. According to popular opinion, the least “doggy” incarnation is a version optimised for Nintendo’s Wii browser. The trouble is, even this hurts; the two-fingered scrolling is a horrid experience, emphasised all the more when used alongside the rest of the iPad’s usual fluid interface, and as such is to be avoided where possible. Interacting with the contained feeds is no better either. If I touch on a link to read the full article, Safari takes me out of my page, creates a new page, and takes me into it. Very smart. But boy is this slow when repeated two, three, five times in a row.

Interaction niggles aside, Google’s software illustrates very well probably the biggest issue common to the entire iPad package, and that is that there are currently no clean mechanisms for passing information amongst installed apps. For instance, taking a look at a typical news tweet using TweetDeck: start off by copying the news link in question from the Safari address bar, simple. Then open up a new page to get to the link shortener (the TweetDeck link shortener doesn’t work yet), paste the large link and copy the resultant shortened link. So far so good. Close down Safari, open TweetDeck, open a new tweet and paste the shortened link, tweet, close TweetDeck, open Safari, close the current page that the link was cut from, choose the Reader page in the Safari page finder, and on to the next RSS feed item.

Now do that a second time.

And this is just me sharing a single individual news feed. What about when people want to share multiple feeds via email, or digg, or IM? Or quickly make notes on an article they’re in the middle of? Or keep a history of interesting articles in a spreadsheet? The iPhone is a delight and doesn’t suffer from these bigger-picture issues, because, well, it’s a phone. With the iPad, the bar has shifted, and so have expectations.

So right now we’re in typical early-adopter land, learning to work around problems, sucking up the niggles, and putting on brave faces to our peers. But it really is all okay. I’ve been here before, as I’m sure have many of you. Because you see, the beauty with Apple’s new baby, and the thing that makes everything just fine, is that the hardware, the thing you simply can’t change once you’ve plunked down your cash, is absolutely fantastic right off the bat. And although the software, the youthful, energetic, and sometimes temperamental sibling, may be a bit of a pain right now, well, we’ll survive because we know that that is just plain easy to fix, and once the software catches up, boy will this be a serious piece of kit to own.

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