So the iPad has been available in the US for a few weeks now and I'm disappointed to find that one of my predictions seems to be coming true: the iPad won't truly be 'out' for another few months, when developers have had enough time with a real iPad in their hands to design true iPad apps.
Even Apple's own apps are problematic. The iPod app has only one big improvement over the iPhone edition: I can create custom playlists. But wouldn't the ability to play music wirelessly through an AirPort Express be useful? How about an Update All Podcasts button?
And they couldn't make better use of that larger screen? Does Apple realise that it now makes a lovely tabletop dock that would be perfect if you were using the iPad as a media controller?
Some omissions are just plain silly. When I first tried the iPad with a physical keyboard, I was pleased to find that the OS supported the usual cut-copy-paste command key equivalents. So when I tried to italicise a word and nothing happened, I assumed that I'd just mis-keyed the C-I. The thought that Pages wouldn't support these basic shortcuts had never crossed my mind.
Bad: to apply even such a basic style, I need to reach up and tap a button on the screen. Worse: if I'm typing in landscape mode — which is how most writers will instinctively orient the iPad — I first have to rotate the screen 90 degrees, because Pages' toolbar disappears in landscape mode.
But the above problems should be easy to fix. The bigger problem with the evolution of iPad software will be in developing the core philosophy. What is an iPad app? Why would someone choose to achieve their day's goals with an iPad instead of a netbook?
A light bite
My mandate to most iPad developers — at least those who are working on productivity apps, such as word processors — is simple: pack me a lunch, you don't need to serve me the whole menu.
I'll use Scrivener as an example. It's more than my favourite word processor; Scrivener is the factory floor of my business. Everything I publish starts in Scrivener and is managed as a piece of a larger project. I loved my Dell Mini 9 netbook solely because it was a computer that I could stick in my back pocket and could run Scrivener (after I Hackintoshed it, and assuming that I was wearing the trousers with the big back pockets).I'd love to have the full edition of Scrivener on my iPad. But in truth, it'd be enough if my desktop edition allowed me to prepare a project for use on my iPad.
Just before I head out to meet a friend I could launch ScrivenerPad on my MacBook and tell the desktop app to 'pack me a lunch' with my current project.
The lunchbox contains all of the related project data in one compact text file. Lots of Scrivener's features will be left behind. That's fine because they would only add clutter to the iPad app and make it hard to focus on the work in hand. My friend is always late so I'll be able to open ScrivenerPad on my iPad while I wait. ScrivenerPad would know where I had got to in the project and would open at that point. When I return to the office, all the changes I've made will be synced back into the desktop Scrivener file. The iPad gives me the power to add to my document when I'm out and about, but the real editing would happen on my Mac.
When I complained about features missing from the iPad version of the iPod app, I was only speaking of features that made sense to have in a tablet. I want to walk into my living room with my iPad and start playing music through my home theatre without having to plug it into a dock. And when my one (one!) Celine Dion track (purchased in irony, I swear. Shut up!) comes up on shuffle, I want to move on to some Lou Reed by tapping a screen next to me on the sofa. I don't want to leap across the room to an iPad that's hardwired into the speakers. Other features would be mere frills.
Keep it relevant
The brilliance of the iPad is the understanding that many laptop features aren't relevant in a tablet computer. I'm not likely to use external hard drives and printers with a tablet. So why bother cutting three USB ports into it, and adding all kinds of troublesome third-party device drivers to the OS? And why bother adding all kinds of features to an app that will be used just 1 per cent of the time, and which ruin the clean lines of the interface every time the app is launched?
There's a universal statement about art that says the defining characteristic of a masterpiece isn't what's there on the canvas, but what isn't there. The highest achievement of an artist isn't endless hard labour but the instinctive awareness of that moment when the work is complete and the brush must be laid down. There's a point beyond which additional strokes will only obscure your message.
Thus iPad apps should be simple and purposeful or else the point of the device gets lost and it becomes just another consumer gadget.
It sounds as though I'm describing the iPad as a work of art. It's tempting, but I remember the headaches I suffered when it became clear that Apple was really going to use the word 'magical' in its marketing plan for the device. But I'll stand by the word 'special'. The iPad is unlike any other computer ever made and the software made for it should rewrite the rules. Don't build apps that could run on anything else, build apps that are as special as the device itself.
Apple should lead by example when it comes to designing apps for the iPad, and this is why the iWork apps are a little disappointing, not because of the italics incident, but because they're not simple enough to do the simple things you want to do while out and about. Who cares if you can add images and flow text if you can't edit it easily? To torture the metaphor further I just want the lunch special not the a la carte.