The iPad – a social computer?

I’ve been ignoring all the build-up to this year’s Apple produce announcement, mainly because I just didn’t want to get my hopes up. But it turns out that I’m actually quite excited about the iPad, Apple’s tablet computer.

I had a very spirited discussion with my husband on the train last night as we were catching up on the announcements made whilst we were in a plane. My thought is that there will be two reactions to the iPad: the spec-geeks who will pour over the physical specification and find it wanting in comparison to their own laptop or desktop. People who look at the iPad the same way they looked at the Air, as a smaller version of their existing laptop will be disappointed, as many of them were with the Air, because the iPad is not as powerful or as fast as a laptop.

Then there’ll be people who come at it having used an iPhone or iPod Touch. For them, the iPad is a different proposition. It will give them a bigger and better browsing experience. Reading ebooks will be easier, videos will be bigger, email more readable. For people who want a better sofa experience, who want to be entertained and kept busy on a long journey, or who want a less conspicuous machine to take meeting notes, it looks like a goer. It’s not going to be a MacBook replacement, but a machine to sit between the iPhone/iPod Touch and the MacBook.

Obviously I see sociability in everything, so I think the iPad is going to be great for social media. I find the iPhone too small to write a blog post on, yet I have most of my blog post ideas whilst I’m out and about. Would an iPad encourage me to write more?

Because the iPad taps into the existing App Store and is able to run apps either at iPhone definition or x2, without any interventions necessary, it comes ready to rock and roll. There’s already a WordPress iPhone App along with Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and many others. Your social web is there, ready and waiting. App writers can, if they want, upgrade their apps to take advantage of the bigger screen, which means potentially more functionality and a richer experience.

And because of the form factor, might we see more people using an iPad in scenarios where you wouldn’t get a laptop out? I have long felt that opening a laptop, e.g. in a meeting, is a bad thing from a psychological point of view: Flipping up the screen puts up a barrier between you and the person you’re talking to, something I greatly dislike. Would an iPad be better in meetings or at social gatherings? Would they make the iPad user able to socialise both in person and online simultaneously without the people present feeling blocked out?

For my money, though, Apple has some changes to make to ensure the iPad’s success: Stop inhibiting innovation by placing strictures on what sort of apps are allowed in the App Store. By all means, have a QA process to ensure that malicious apps aren’t developed, but their current rules about not developing apps that conflict with Apple-provided apps is stupid and counter-productive. If I want to run a different browser than Safari, for example, a browser that integrates with Instapaper, Delicious, Twitter and other social tools, then I should be able to do so.

Equally, they need to rethink their age warnings. It is utterly absurd to see an age-related warning when you install a dictionary or an RSS reader just because it’s possible to see some naughty words in those sorts of applications. Apple needs to understand that it can’t expect to promulgate the values of conservative America (as opposed to the rest of America, which is much more sensible) around the world in a techno-cultural hegemony.

Apple are already coming under fire for being shills for DRM, and rightly so. Nate Anderson of Ars Technica wrote:

Members of the Free Software Foundation staged a small protest outside today’s Apple event in San Francisco, making the case against Apple’s use of DRM. The group’s four-foot signs were headed with the message “Entering Apple Restriction Zone” and laid out the tablet’s detriments:

* No free software

* No installing apps from the Web

* No sharing music or books

* We can remotely disable your apps & media

Much as I love the look of the iPad, Apple needs to deal with these issues and as a community we should bring to bear as much pressure as we can. This is the one thing that dulls my enthusiasm for the iPad. I was vehemently against Microsoft’s Vista and all the DRM and ‘phone home’ controls that it supported. Anyone who felt that Vista was an invasion of their privacy must apply the same logic to the iPad. We can’t just let Apple off the hook because their device and OS are prettier.

I’m confident, however, that people will take steps to route around the barriers that get in their way. It didn’t take long for someone to jailbreak the iPhone and we can expect the iPad to come under much more scrutiny. I never felt comfortable jailbreaking my primary communications device, but I’d be much happier to fiddle with an iPad in order to install the software that I want to use. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

I’ll leave you now with the iPad keynote for your delectation and delight:

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