the iPad and other tablets

by Philip Greenspun, February 2011; updated May 2011

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Tablet computing, was the exciting new thing for 2002, as Bill Gates introduced Microsoft Tablet PC with great fanfare. No longer would Windows users have their creativity stifled by sitting down and typing; they could stand up and/or use a stylus and handwriting to create. It was a dismal flop (I bought one, found that it couldn't recognize my, uh, idiosyncratic handwriting, and gave it away to my cousin Lynn, who was able to use it very effectively). What was Bill Gates's big mistake? If the iPad and Kindle are anything to go by, the critical mistake was the assumption that people wanted to create.

By removing the capability for consumers to do much other than passively consume, Amazon and Apple enormously simplified the engineering challenge of the tablet and scored big hits with the Kindle in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. With no need to perfect handwriting or gesture recognition, Amazon and Apple were able to succeed where dozens of earlier attempts had failed (full history).

Great uses for tablets

For people performing a task that precludes sitting down and typing at a laptop or desktop PC, the tablet has a lot of practical applications. This includes displaying charts for pilots, pulling up medical info for doctors, etc.

With the Kindle, Amazon demonstrated that a lightweight portable daylight-readable library is a valued application. I purchased one of the early Kindles and it was great for travel and, because it is so much lighter than most books, great for use on a treadmill.

Most of the people I've surveyed seem to use their iPads primarily as a way to surf the Web, play games, or watch movies while on a sofa or in bed. Although I personally find the on-screen keyboard very difficult to use compared to the $5 keyboards that you might get with a $299 desktop PC, heavy iPad users adapt to it pretty well, much better than people seem to adapt to the iPhone keyboard.

Why I don't love the iPad

The Macintosh operating system and Microsoft Windows offer a limited degree of consistency from application to application. Commands available from menus can always be pulled down from a bar at the top. On nearly every Windows application, selecting something and then using the right mouse button brings up a list of applicable commands for whatever has been selected. Despite this basic commonality, the standard PC gives so much flexibility to application developers that users are often confused. Learning how to use a spreadsheet program does not prepare one to use a video editing program.

The Web made computing much easier for most people. A process was broken up into steps, or pages, with forward and back buttons if the user wanted to return to an earlier part of the process. Especially during the 1990-1997 period, the design of Web services was remarkably consistent. See something blue? It's a link that you can click on to get to another page. The advent of graphic designers wishing to put their personal stamp on pages and then the widespread adoption of in-page Javascript has muddied the waters, but there are still a lot of conventions that work across a wide range of Web sites, e.g., "click on the logo in the top left corner and you'll get back to the home page".

How does the Web site, for example, compare to the New York Times iPad application? Reading an article on the nytimes Web site, clicking on the logo into the top left corner returns to the home page. In the iPad app? You need to learn new ways of navigation. Giving programmers the freedom to build any interface that they like was a bad idea on conventional PCs and it seems also to be a bad idea for most things that you'd want to do with a tablet.

Kindle (E Ink) versus LCD-based tablets

Place an LCD-based tablet, such as an iPad, next to a Kindle, with the same text on both screens. Due to the nature of color LCD screens, the text on the standard tablet will be so fuzzy that you might think the tablet is broken. The Kindle's E Ink screen is no higher in resolution, but monochrome displays are simply sharper than a display that relies on masking out different colors from a white backlight. For reading in bed or in a dim room, the backlit tablet will be superior; the Kindle will be much easier to read outdoors or under an airplane reading light, for example.

[A tablet equipped with an organic LED display (OLED) might, in the long run, offer sharper text than LCD. So far my experience with the Samsung Epic 4G is that the screen looks much better but text is not obviously sharper in the way that it is on a Kindle.]

A Kindle is lighter than an iPad and thus more comfortable to hold, especially on a treadmill. The Kindle has an honest week of battery life, making it ideal for taking trips without a charger (though the latest Kindles can charge from any standard USB cable).

Traveling with a tablet

If a tablet charged itself from ambient light and/or could do every IT task that the traveler needed to accomplish, traveling with a tablet would be delightful. However, if you also need a laptop computer and a mobile phone, a tablet is yet another item to babysit with charging, protect in a case, etc.

[See my review of the BlackBerry PlayBook for just how well traveling with some tablets works out.]

Creating art with a tablet

David Hockney has been painting with touch screens since 2008 (article; Google Image search), primarily using the Brushes iPhone/iPad application.

Here are some Brushes paintings done by Diane Nicholls, a Martha's Vineyard-based artist best known for her oil paintings and watercolors:

For novices

A general-purpose tablet seems like a great computing device for someone new to computers. They can do everything simply by touching the screen; no need to learn how to use the mouse and keyboard. From observing elderly Windows users, however, my conclusion is that the mouse and keyboard are the least of their problems. They don't understand the multiple applications that are available or the hierarchical file system or why they have to "save" a document they've been working on. Yet the same folks are often fairly effective users of standard Web sites, as long as they don't inadvertently close the browser and have to figure out how to relaunch.

Would an iPad be a good device for a person who never has or perhaps never will learn how to use a standard Windows, Linux, or Macintosh? Perhaps, but I think such folks would be better served by a machine that did everything via a single browser window. Almost everything that they would want to do with the computer, including watching streaming videos from Netflix or listening to music on Pandora, is doable from a Web browser.


Judging from the volume and growth of sales, the iPad is the future of computing. I just can't figure out why.


Text and photos copyright 2010-2011 Philip Greenspun. Paintings copyright 2011 Diane Nicholls.

Reader's Comments

It's not clear to me if you are being serious or if this is a joke, but it seems obvious after looking videos of new users that touch screens are vastly superior interfaces than any confusing stuff done with a mouse. You talk about folks having trouble when UI widgets are used in slight non-standard ways, but the abstraction of the pointer and not using basic tactile is the huge leap. And yeah, once you're learned how to use some wacky process to do something you need to unlearn it when it's different, but that's only a problem is people have learned it in the first place. The point is that it's a wacky process to use a "pointer" removed from your actual pointer that is what is so difficult.

There's a good video of a 2.5 year old using an ipad, which gives you a basic idea of why touch tablets in particular are so much better.

I do think that keyboard and mice are a major problem, but also note that the other issue you mention "multiple applications", "file systems", (let alone "hierarchical file systems"), "needing to save a document", etc, which are all solved problems with the ipad (at least, I'd assume Android-based apps as well), no matter how much geeks are clamoring for multitasking. So I guess, seeing as how those problems are side stepped, what is surprising about the popularity?

(My problem with e-ink at least on the kindle 1 is the eternity it takes to update a page of text, making turning a page forward and back so painful that I exclusively use the kindle app on my iPad. But I hear it's gotten better in later versions so I don't know, but I found it frustrating.)

-- Will Schenk, March 3, 2011

Will: Thanks for the perspective. Is the touch screen good for a 2.5-year-old? I'm glad to hear it. I know a 75-year-old Harvard graduate who was completely unable to use the iPad, even after a 30-minute tutorial session at an Apple Store (from a "Genius"?). She is just about equally helpless with Windows, but is a capable user of a Web browser.

Maybe this says something about Harvard...

-- Philip Greenspun, March 3, 2011

I think you are missing a key benefit of tablet. People enjoy using tablets much more then PCs. PCs come with so much baggage, years of viruses, frustration, and required tech support. Also in my opinion, there is an intrinsic pleasure to using a touch screen versus a mouse. It helps that iPad apps tend to focus on aesthetics and the user experience.

I think your view on consumption vs creation is based on the past. When the GUI first came out, the mouse was seen as a toy and not needed for real work. Now most creation needs a mouse. We create now with a mouse and a keyboard because it is what we had available. Creation is more than text entry and many people will find touch screens superior to a mouse for creation. People are already using an iPad for creation and apps will only get more powerful and useful. It doubt it will be long before tablets are better for graphic design, photo editing, and video editing.

-- Anthony Perez, March 6, 2011

I have to say I don't think I've figured out the whole tablet thing, either. I don't have problems using "regular" computers, though I find a few web sites frustrating. But the only current use I can envision for a tablet is as an "instant-on" surfing device, to allow me to use Google as quickly and portably as I'd use a phone book.

I can't see taking one on a trip; if I need a computer, I'll take a laptop, and if not, I'll just use my smartphone, which I will have with me anyway. And at $500 and up, they are a bit pricey to me for casual 'Net surfing devices.

I have to hand it to Apple's marketing department, though. They have convinced a good number of people to buy them.

-- Corey Clingo, May 2, 2011

“By removing the capability for consumers to do much other than passively consume, Amazon and Apple enormously simplified the engineering challenge of the tablet [. . .]”

Good heavens, I had thought this shibboleth laid to rest long ago. If the iPad is purely for passive consumption, then . . .

What Apple removed was not the ability to create, as Garageband and dozens of creative applications available on the App Store clearly demonstrate. What Apple removed was abstraction and complexity from the user interface. People interact much more directly with the iPad and its applications than with previous incarnations of the tablet concept (or, indeed, with desktop or notebook computers). The iPad is visual, audible, and most importantly, tactile. That is what delights users, and that is what lies at the root of the iPad’s popularity.

The flip side of this is that, far from removing engineering challenges, Apple solved enormous difficulties in perfecting a touch-based interface that worked quickly and intuitively, without requiring a stylus or other artificial input device—and made it look easy. The need for a stylus is why no previous effort succeeded, and making it look deceptively easy is why no current competitor is within shouting distance. Admittedly, an after-market business does exist to provide specialized drawing tools for the artists mentioned in some of the bullet points above, but they aren’t required to make full, satisfying use of the iPad.

Kindle took the other approach: a single-purpose device that eliminated most of the requirement for a tactile user interface or a stylus. Both techniques work, but the Kindle does only one thing, albeit supremely well. The iPad may not be quite as good a book-reader, but it does a heck of a lot of things pretty darn well, and that is why it’s a winner.

-- D B, May 6, 2011
I just went on a business trip and left the laptop at home, and only used my iPad. It worked great. I still took my laptop briefcase, because on trips I put boarding passes, pens, papers and other stuff in it, but it was now 7 pounds lighter. I may have to get a new case, if I can get over the idea of carrying a man-purse.

I easily spend more hours on my iPad then I do on my laptop because frankly, the ergonomics are just that much superior. You can't really use a laptop comfortably in any other position then table+chair. But all of these combinations work fine for an iPad:

* table + chair * couch * armchair * bed lying down * bed sitting up * bed upside down

So iPad = Freedom to move around the house.

You can argue its about consumption, but we are all 90% consumers. I probably wouldn't write a novel on one, true. But I have reviewed and edited documents on it, produced graphics, all kinds of "creation". I also have the wireless keyboard, so I could write a novel, I just wouldn't because its easier for me to switch to the laptop for that use case. Come to think of it, I don't use the built-in keyboard on my laptop most of the time either, I plug in a full size keyboard.

So at the end of the day, tablets aren't really about replacing the desktop, they're about freeing the user from the desk. Mine is working well for that task.

The #1 killer feature for me of the iPad is for reading PDF documents. Sure, that's consumption, but reading PDFs on a desktop/laptop just sucks. Curling up in an armchair to read a tech PDF is nirvana.

-- Pierce Wetter, May 6, 2011

Speaking of novices, you wrote, "They don't understanding the multiple applications that are available or the hiearchical file system or why they have to 'save' a document they've been working on." You're right... but two out of three of those problems don't arise with the iPad.

With iOS--the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad operating system--Apple made the hierarchical file system invisible to users. That can present problems for knowledgable users like us who were brought up on HFS. But the iPad wasn't built for geeks. Hiding the file system eliminates the "Where did I put it?" confusion that bedevils so many novice users. If your app can work with a file, it can see the file.

And with iOS, there is never any need to save a document. Whatever you do is preserved until you erase or change it. No iOS application has a "Save" command. It's just not something you ever have to think about. I wish all computers worked that way.

The choices that Apple made in iOS can be limiting for "power users" like us... but again, we're not the main audience for the iPad. The iPad's enormous and continuing success testify to the fact that there *is* an audience, and a large one at that. (Meanwhile, netbook sales are down 30%.)

-- Andy Baird, May 6, 2011

As a pilot, though, iPad can change your life. The first really viable EFB for the broader pilot community. Plates, charts, weather, flight planning, etc.

-- Tyson Weihs, May 6, 2011
I found it pretty ironic that in the part where you were talking about how much better you like hardware keyboards over the on screen keyboard on your PC you typod the word keyboard.

-- Photar Bodine, May 8, 2011
You came so tantalizingly close to getting it, with your emphasis on "single browser window". That is the essence of what iPad is, except instead of being a computer with a single browser window, iPad IS the window. Then, by extension, it can become the UI for anything. It is the window without embellishment or contrasting context. iPad places the emphasis on the content of the window/application, rather than the container. I (and apparently others) find it compelling.

-- Nathan Hillery, May 10, 2011
Read Joe Hewitt's take for one developer's perspective on why the iPad is going to be successful despite its limitations. Or read Fraser Speirs' or Mike Montero's or Lucien Dupont's.

-- Victor Panlilio, May 10, 2011
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