After watching the highly anticipated presentation of Apple’s latest creation, here are my initial impressions from a developer’s point of view. Apologies in advance for the very long post and the somewhat random order of information. My mind is in hyperdrive thinking about all the new possibilities.
The iPad and the iPhone are very different
The iPad is not portable in the same way that the iPhone and iPod Touch is. You will not pull out the iPad from your back pocket and interact with a 2-minute app while you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. When thinking about apps for the iPad you have to think about how this device will be used.
The iPad is the new home computer. I see it being shared among members of a family to surf the web, consume media or look up information while watching a show. Or even interacting with the show in real-time. You don’t walk to another room to “use the computer”; it’s always laying around in your house, ready to be picked up and used where you are. Of course much of this applies to the iPhone as well. But one big difference is that the iPhone is very personal in that the screen is too small to share. The iPad screen seems big enough that you can have shared experiences around it. How about sitting around an iPad and playing a board game, where the computer takes care of the boring parts like keeping score and enforcing the rules?
I can also see a big role for the iPad in schools and educational settings. Schools that today have a computer in the classroom often have it shoved off in a corner or a special computer area, where students go to do “computer tasks”. An iPad can be integrated into the classroom and with the teacher-student interactions in a much more natural way. Given Apple’s long history in the educational market, I’m a bit surprised there was no mention of this. Maybe they’ll do a special school related event later with iTextbook and some other features targeted directly at the educational market.
As an app developer you need to realize that the iPad is not an iPhone. The same apps, user scenarios and UI designs that make sense on the iPhone, probably don’t translate well to the iPad. While there is sure to be an initial flood of iPhone apps “adapted” for the iPad, I think that in the long run the really successful iPad apps will be those that really take advantage of the unique characteristics of this device.
Apple is really encouraging developers to create universal binaries that will run on all devices and that adapt to the current run-time environment. This has some interesting consequences. On the positive side for developers is that you only have to maintain one build. For customers this approach is also a good thing because they don’t have to manage different versions of the same app for their array of devices. (You know people will want an iPad in addition to their iPhone.) The economic drawback of this for us developers is that customers who have already purchased your iPhone app will get the iPad upgrade for free.
The bar for apps is going to be much higher on the iPad than the iPhone/iPod Touch. A silly app that just does one simple thing might be a fun gag on a device that you can pull out of your pocket and show your friends. But it’s going to fall flat on the larger capabilities of the iPad. I think people will expect more. However that doesn’t mean that app developers won’t try.
Relying on pixel doubling is not going to cut it. You need to adapt your apps to make use of the larger screen and the new SDK features. This may lead to a natural segregation of apps in the App Store: those apps where the developers actively invest in upgrades, and those that are more or less abandoned. Personally I think that would be a good thing.
Also, the bar for app developers is going to be much higher on the iPad. The learning curve for getting into iPhone development is not that steep. And if you don’t want to learn Objective-C and Cocoa Touch, then you can outsource development for a reasonable cost. Creating an app that works well on both the iPad and the iPhone is a whole new level. This requires that you have given separation of concerns some serious thought, you have a solid model-view-controller design, etc. Of course you can ignore this advice and forge ahead anyway. But given the conditional coding required to adapt to the two device classes, you are very likely to end up with a big pile of spaghetti code.
The new SDK 3.2 comes with a new NDA, so I can’t talk about any new features. But at a first glance there is a lot of new stuff to learn. It’s going to be an intense 60 days to master this new SDK.
The iPad screen resolution is 1024 x 768. This is a 4:3 aspect ratio, instead of the 3:2 ratio of the iPhone and 16:9 for HDTV sets. So when you play HD content in landscape mode you’ll get black bars above and below the video. This is something to keep in mind when you create full screen video content for the iPad. The new SDK seems to support video playback that does not take over the entire screen, (finally!), so another option could be to play videos in portrait mode at 768 x 432 (=16:9) and leave the bottom half of the screen for other content. I’m guessing that the reason for the iPad screen size is that a more elongated device would feel awkward in your hands.
The lack of a camera is disappointing. The focus of the iPad seems to be on media consumption. And there’s plenty of new territory to explore here to keep us busy for quite some time. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple included a camera in a future model. That would make the iPad a real communication and collaboration device. But then again, maybe they’re reserving that for the iPhone. Remember the fuss around the “missing” camera in the latest generation iPod Touch.
The Apple A4 processor is a big deal. Reports from people who got to test the iPad after the presentation say that the iPad is blazing fast. How could you even consider writing a suite of productivity apps for the device if it didn’t have the necessary horsepower. This bodes really well for app developers. How many times have you been hamstrung by the lack of CPU power in the iPhone? Now whole new horizons open up. And for the 4th generation iPhone coming later in the year, would you be surprised if it was powered by the A4 processor (or a close sibling)?
And since Apple designed the A4, they own it. How many other mobile device manufacturers have their own chip design company in-house? How are they going to compete? The iPhone showed that it’s all about the software. After almost 3 years competitors have yet to achieve the same usability and supreme user experience as the iPhone. Now add in a super-blazing-fast CPU (that nobody else can get their hands on) and the type of applications you can create on Apple’s devices just took another huge leap forward.
By not including Flash on the iPad (no surprise in that) Apple has put another nail in the coffin of proprietary web technologies. If the iPad is the new home entertainment complement that sits on a kitchen or coffee table, people will avoid web sites that rely on Flash when they search the web for entertainment or information related to the show they’re watching. Before, you could maybe get away with a web site that did not support mobile devices. But with iPad media consumption devices that number in the millions that is no longer an option.
I’ve spent a lot of time building ebook and comic book readers for clients. So I can speak with some authority when I say that Apple has spent a lot of time and money building iBook. It is by far the best presentation of traditional books on an electronic device that I’ve seen. Kindle and Nook look very pale (literally) in comparison. I consider this to be state of the art for Book 1.5. The next step is to take books to another level: Book 2.0. Now that we have the hardware device, it is time to really innovate.
There was no mention of DRM for ebooks, but I assume that Apple will add an additional layer of Fairplay in the EPUB files that you purchase from the iBookstore (as allowed by the EPUB specification). DRM is a huge concern for people who buy a lot of books. Traditional books are compatible with almost all readers (=humans). But when you buy DRM locked ebooks for your Kindle, Nook or Sony device, you are tied to that vendor forever for reading your ebooks. Apple actually has a leg up in this race because there is a Kindle app for the iPhone. So if you have purchased Kindle ebooks in the past you can read them on your iPad. It will be interesting to see if Amazon will create an iPad version of their reader. My guess is that they will. In the long run it has to be more attractive for Amazon to deliver digital content vs. being in the hardware business competing with Apple and Sony.
I’m a little bit surprised that Apple just focused on traditional books. No mention of magazines, newspapers or textbooks. If the NY Times demo was any indication, then Apple will leave this area to individual publishers. That’s good for us developers since we get to build apps for each one.
The new gold rush
The work Apple has done with creating iWork for the iPad is nothing short of amazing. It’s hard to tell how useful productivity apps will be on a tablet until you get your hands on a device for a longer period of time. But I’m disappointed in the price level and the expectations Apple sets by “giving away” the iWork apps for $9.99 each. That means we remain stuck in dollar-app mode. (I’m convinced that Apple really likes dollar-app pricing. More on that in a future blog post.)
At $499 this is a mass market device. Apple will sell a lot of these devices. Dedicated ebook readers like the Kindle and the Nook will have a tough time to justify their existence. Kindle recently announced a SDK for their device, and Nook is built on Android so there’s a theoretical possibility that they’ll come out with and SDK too. Meanwhile Apple has over 100k developers with current skills and who are just itching to dig in and build new apps for this device.
I fully agree with Scott Forstall: This is going to be another app developer gold rush. It’s going to be fun!