You've seen the new toy. You've seen the experts debate: Will the Apple iPad "save" newspapers, journalism, book publishing? Will it kill the Amazon Kindle? Is this the death of the laptop, and the PC as we know it? Has Apple just signaled the death of the ultraportable MacBook Air? Will it replace smartphones like the iPhone or Nexus One? Has Apple just pwned another media marketplace -- sorry Amazon, Google, Microsoft? Goodbye, netbooks? Farewell, computers? Blah, blah, blah. Nobody knows the future, so such pronouncements are justifiably viewed as so much hype. I'm not a tech or media critic, though I work for a newspaper (and yes, full disclosure, that paper does seem to have a working relationship with the iPad developers, but I had no role in that or the news coverage of the tablet).
I'm approaching this as a gadget lover and a reader. And to this consumer, the iPad vs. Kindle question is the most important one. To my surprise, I find myself leaning toward the cheapest, $499 iPad without 3G or a lot of storage.
Back in August, my Amazon Kindle's e-ink display melted down. A tragedy.
I had some frustrations with the Kindle. The hardware of the first model in particular always felt a little cheap and poorly designed. I was constantly turning pages by mistake.
While e-ink did seem to reduce eyestrain, I went through a series of booklights that didn't quite fit the device and had to be positioned just-so to avoid creating glare on the screen.
I actually found the backlit Kindle app on the iPhone to be easier for reading in bed and on planes.
The Kindle did a poor job rendering newspapers and magazines. The user interface was awkward, requiring you to page through endless menus. The device didn't have enough storage. And the crippled experimental browser was so bad that some users are apparently willing to pay Amazon for blog posts. And I actually paid Amazon for the privilege to email PDFs to myself.
But I forgave all that. I loved my Kindle. Its always-on, free Internet connection made downloading free first chapters and shopping for books anywhere a dream. The eBook prices (and first chapter previews) were easy on my wallet. The selection was Amazonian. I no longer had to lug around so many heavy books on vacation trips. So I really missed it when it died. And I lusted for the Kindle 2 and the Kindle DX. The Nook and Sony Reader didn't measure up. But I held off, because everyone suspected the Apple tablet was coming soon.
Now that I've seen the iPad, I think it's my Kindle replacement. I'll have to hold one and read on it to be sure.
Do I need another way to watch movies and video? Not really, but it's cool the iPad does that. Do I need another way to get my email or surf the Web? Not really, but any device that can't do those things easily loses points. Do I need another way to write or do other computer work on the run? Not necessarily, but it's great that the iPad has some solutions for that. Do I need another music player? Not one this big. Do I need another mobile GPS device? Again, not one this big. Do I need another way to display digital photos? (Well, actually, that is kind of cool).
But as a book reader, it seems like a winner. This may not be the greatest news for Apple's bottom line or its dreams of a media revolution.
Consider the iPad's reading features: The ability to turn pages via touchscreen. Books with color charts and photography. Books with video embedded. Everything in Amazon's proprietary format via the Kindle app. Everything else that comes in the (relatively open) ePub format, including many Google Books and everything else available on the Stanza reader. (The Kindle limits you to the Amazon library.)
With customized apps, the iPad will render magazines, newspapers and other print items far better than anything out there, including standard Web browsers on computers.
And yes, that will allow some content providers to charge for the enhanced reading experience. That won't "save" journalism or book publishing. Journalism doesn't really need saving, but devices like this will be another force working to transform how it is distributed and financially supported. That will be good news for bloggers and small news shops looking for income, not just the big corporate media.
Sure, the Kindle hardware and software will catch up -- but it's still wedded to the proprietary Amazon format. Sure, there will other devices, running Google Chrome or Android, netbook-type devices from the Windows world, and proprietary gadgets from some content providers (which will probably fail). All that competition will be good for consumers and content providers everywhere.
But one other thing tips the balance toward the iPad for me that might not apply to everyone: I am among the minority that live in a Mac world, and there's a justifiable expectation that the iPad will work seamlessly within that world, from iPhone apps to the iTunes store. I'm not an unreasoning fanboy. If the iPad turns out to be as buggy as my Apple TV, or too locked down (what, no Flash?), I'll be annoyed.
Much of the commentary has focused on whether the iPad will replace the laptop or even the desktop computer. It might, for people who don't really need computers for their jobs, who are more consumers of content than creators. It might appeal to casual touch-gamers, but not hard-core PC gamers.
I don't think an iPad would completely replace my MacBook Air (which I got after flirting with a cheaper, smaller Acer Windows netbook; too awkward to use routinely, and I remembered why I hated Windows).
For work, I need to use Microsoft Word, and I need to run the newsroom's publishing software, which is a bit of a system hog. I want to be able to run the Firefox browser, with some special plugins for work, and I bet the iPad will be a Safari world. I rely heavily on Bento 3, and the iPhone version of that program is pretty much useful only as a read-only app for me. I need to be able to view my paper's video players and other Flash content, which the iPad doesn't do (although it appears that the customized Times app for the iPad does play video, based on the keynote demo). And with a keyboard stand, the iPad looks a bit awkward for day to day office or home use on a lap. I don't enjoy writing anything longer than a Tweet with a touchscreen keyboard. And the iPad's maximum 64 gigabytes of storage is not enough.
This would be a third device after the laptop and the iPhone, and I probably wouldn't carry it every day. I imagine it would mostly be for home use, or trips. It's for pleasure, a toy, not a necessity.
So that leaves the cost question. The gadget freak in me lusts for the high-end $829 iPad with 64 gigabytes and 3G connectivity. That's an awful lot for an e-book reader, and might not pass the spouse's-raised-eyebrow test. At that price, I might not feel comfortable flashing it around on the New York subway, either.
But do I really need 3G and an always-on connection? Looking back on my Kindle usage, I mainly downloaded things at home or the airport, both places where WiFi is not a problem. More and more free WiFi hot spots are popping up, and more friends have wireless in their apartments. It's becoming customary to give your WiFi password (if you lock it down) to friends and other guests. No device can give me Internet in most of the subway. And with AT&T's network still overloaded in Manhattan, browsing the Internet via 3G is not all that fun, though it's great to have a 3G phone in an emergency.
Those factors make the non-3G $499 to $699 models more attractive than the tech pundits realize, as I posted to Twitter earlier this week. Many hard-core geeks can't imagine not having maximum connectivity everywhere, whereas I can't imagine paying another $30 to AT&T for yet more slow Internet. I'd rather spend the money on books and other content. So the main trade-off when it comes to cost will be the gigs of storage versus price. I already spend a lot of time managing audio and video files on my maxed-out 32G iPhone. When I travel, I keep extra content on an old 60G video iPod. Books don't take up much space, but a few movies and TV series will fill this up quickly.
There's another factor, too -- the life of the device. Early adopters might be salivating to have the first generation, but we know that the next one in a year or two will probably be better. It might have a camera, more storage, software improvements, subsidized deals with content providers, and so on. An early adopter with a smaller budget is probably better off with the cheapest model this time around.
That's where I'm heading. What am I missing?
March 2010 Update: Yes, I did order the non-3G iPad today, but I opted for the one with the biggest storage, 64G at $699. I figure I'll load it up with media, so I wanted the extra capacity, but I still don't see a need for 3G. I've never needed it for my laptop.
April 2010 Update: I wrote about my experience with the Apple iPad here.)