Tablets and tablature

Wednesday, 27 January 2010 — 9:40pm | Computing, Music

Many are rightly wondering if Apple’s iPad really does fill a niche that isn’t already better served by a laptop and a phone (specifically, Apple laptops and Apple phones). I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve long desired a device that allows me to do two things:

  • Read full-size PDFs and websites in bed;
  • Prop up music books on the piano in digital form, complete with gestural page-turns and sheets that don’t blow this way and that.

The iPhone and iPod Touch can’t do this because the screen is too small.

Laptops can’t do this because they go practically anywhere but on your lap, you can’t set them on the bed because they’ll set your house on fire, and the keyboard juts out and gets in your way. The screen orientation is also unsuitable for most PDFs. If you use a laptop, you are practically tethered to a desk. (I have, incidentally, seen a few musicians who put their laptops on the piano as a substitute for lugging a bagful of Real Books around. The form factor leaves much to be desired.)

What about e-readers? I’m astonished at how poorly existing e-readers have handled PDF support. The Kindle, last I heard, allows you to convert PDFs into its proprietary format so you can interact with the text the way you do with any of the books available for the device, but this completely fails to handle the kind of documents I tend to read as PDFs in the first place: music, articles in academic journals (often with diagrams, footnotes, and figures all over the place), and other scans that are sensitive to their original layouts. While the iPad can’t hope to match the battery life and screen texture of dedicated e-book readers for, well, reading books, a bright full-colour screen is exactly what I need for the kind of documents that wind up on my drive as PDFs.

The iPad is perfect for both of these tasks. By the looks of it, I can hold it in any orientation in the laziest of postures without strain, and it will sit nicely on any music stand. It’s an absolute dream for musicians, and the ideal device for someone who needs to pack a lot of stray documents on the go. Who knows—it may even save The New York Times, and I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if this was a major reason why the Times had the gumption to announce it would move its online edition to a paid subscription model next year.

What’s odd, then, is that Apple is falling short of its usual marketing savvy in promoting the features of the iPad as if it were merely an iPod Touch with a bigger screen. The company is clearly expecting the revolution to come from third-party application developers, as was the case with the iPhone, and banking to a lesser extent on the massive content push of its iBooks store, but this seriously undersells the potential of the device.

Combined with a keyboard dock, the iPad is potentially a complete computer replacement for everything I do except a few heavy design/development applications, World of Warcraft, and Civilization—essentially, every reason I have a MacBook Pro instead of the lightweight standard line. And as comfortable as I have become with using LaTeX for all of my document preparation, I am even willing to go back to a word processor like Pages if someone develops a good implementation of speech-to-text, so I can try the Richard Powers method of prose composition. Most people don’t use their computers for any of these tasks, and so long as there is an adequate file management system—something we have yet to see—the iPad could be viable as a standalone device. Keyboards are around to stay, but it’s only a matter of time before the mouse paradigm is dead.

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5 rejoinders to “Tablets and tablature”

  1. Speaking as someone who dislikes most things about Apple, I took a particular relish in the tepid reception to the iPad. I don’t think most people–or at least not the pundits–were able to think of a niche for it yet. Plus, they really screwed the pooch by slimming down its feature-set so much (obligatory Downfall parody).

    Friday, 29 January 2010 at 4:20am

  2. I have to question their choice of name, even though hundreds have already beaten me to it. Why iPad, with all its feminine hygiene product innuendos? Why not iTab? Or iTome? Or iFolio? Or anything else that doesn’t make me immediately wonder if it comes with wings?

    Or maybe we should all just grow up, and get over it.

    Friday, 29 January 2010 at 6:52pm

  3. Ben: I do think Apple misaimed their pitch for the iPad and weren’t playing to the strength of the form factor. They are pushing it as an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment device when it’s clearly a low-cost, low-heat, low-power, low-bootup-time platform for visual content and communication—a netbook replacement for the sort of people who have netbooks (often for purely financial reasons). If the iPad is a huge disappointment for any reason, it’s because it’s the final nail in the coffin for the concept of a scaled-down OS X tablet with precision pen input, which one of Apple’s core professional markets, your Illustrator wizards and Maya modellers, have been demanding for years.

    I don’t think they’re capitalizing enough on how this looks to be a computer for people who neither need nor want computers in the traditional sense, but that’s because none of those hypothetical people obsess over tech coverage and press conferences as it is. I’m likely going to wait a generation or two to see how it pans out, but I do see the appeal in having a computer that isn’t only “portable” in the sense of moving it from table to table.

    Mel: Well, there are two possibilities. Either the pun didn’t occur to them, or it did occur to them and they shrugged and didn’t think it would be a big deal—that the brand association with “iPod” would be strong enough to cancel it out. I’m in the second camp, in that I’m genuinely surprised at how many women jumped on the association right away (and again, and again, and again). Tampons just aren’t a very visible product for men, in more ways than one. When Apple comes up with a cellular magic wand and calls it an “iBone”, then I’ll start getting concerned.

    Friday, 29 January 2010 at 7:39pm

  4. Nobody complains about touchpad for the thing at the bottom of a laptop keyboard (although clit mouse for the thing in the middle of the keyboard is more than a little risqué).

    Thursday, 4 March 2010 at 1:31am

  5. Good observation about touchpad. Apple might have noticed it themselves if they weren’t so busy trying to make everyone call it a trackpad instead.

    Friday, 5 March 2010 at 12:29pm

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