iPad apps: Get ready for the second wave

The iPad itself is nothing but a support system for its software. Years ago, a company — I think it was Exidy — tried to sell software as just a plastic bag full of electrons but they encountered considerable consumer resistance. Ever since then, no company has been so bold as to try to sell apps without some sort of computer out there for it to run on.

And the iPad is certainly the single most software-focused computer on the market. Apple emphatically makes this point with every step of the iPad’s design: it’s a picture frame for software. And like a real picture frame, if you take notice of the frame instead of the software then something’s definitely gone wrong somewhere. Either you’ve got a gaudy picture frame or you’ve got deathly dull kids who will probably make their living designing tax forms or standing outside telling people where they can’t park their cars.

The iPad has been available 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 finally had enough time with a real iPad in their hands to design true iPad-focused apps. Most of the freshman class seem to be either embiggened editions of iPhone hits or apps that bear the fingerprints of mouse-and-keyboard user interface design.

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 a single “Update All Podcasts” button?

And they couldn’t make better use of that larger screen? They do realize that Apple makes a lovely tabletop dock that appears to have been meant for using the iPad as a media controller, don’t they?

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 italicize a word and nothing happened, I assumed that I’d just mis-keyed the Command-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.

Oh, dear. [Editor's note: As this article was being prepared for posting, Apple released an update to Pages to correct this unfortunate behavior.]

But the above problems are easy to spot, and easier to fix. You see a nail sticking up a little, you hammer it down. The bigger problem with the evolution of iPad software will be in developing the core philosophy. What is an iPad app? What sort of statement is the user making when he or she leaves the house with the intention of prosecuting the day’s goals with an iPad instead of a notebook?

The iPad as a packed lunch

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.

I’m brown-bagging it today. You don’t need to serve me the whole menu.

I’ll use Scrivener as an example. It’s more than my favorite Mac word processor: Scrivener is the factory floor of my business. Everything I publish, be it a book, a game, an online piece, or this very column you’re reading now, 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 could stick in my back pocket which could run Scrivener (after I Hackintoshed it, and assuming that I was wearing the pants 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.

I am nervously eyeing the clock as I write this column. I’m supposed to meet a friend for breakfast in about twenty minutes. I reach over to my iPad, launch ScrivenerPad, reach back to my MacBook, and tell the desktop app to “pack me a lunch” with my current project. The lunchbox contains all of the project data. In this case, the column-in-progress plus every column I’ve written for Macworld in the past few years, plus assorted research. It’s all text, so it’s a depressingly compact file.

The more important thing is that ScrivenerPad would know “where I am” in this project and instinctively limit the onscreen clutter to focus solely on the thing I was doing when I packed the lunch. When my friend texts to tell me he’s going to be late, I can wake my iPad and immediately see my column and all of the research I attached to it over the past couple of days. When I return to the office, all of the changes I made will be synced back into the desktop Scrivener file.

Lots of Scrivener’s features will be left behind. That’s fine. 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 slate. I want to walk into my living room with my iPad and start playing music through my home theater without having to plug it into a dock. And when my one (one!) Celene Dion track (purchased in irony, I swear) (shut up!) comes up on shuffle play I want to move on to some Lou Reed by tapping a screen next to me on the sofa. As things are today, I have leap across the room to an iPad that’s hardwired into the speakers.

Other features would be mere frills. I don’t need to transcode my media, or edit ID3 tags.

The brilliance of the iPad is the understanding that many notebook features aren’t relevant in a slate computer. I’m likely to use external hard drives and printers with a notebook. Not so with a slate. 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 only be used 1% 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’s been articulated in many ways by many artists. 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 labor 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. iPad apps must be simple and purposeful or else the point of the device becomes 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 mild headaches I suffered when it became clear that Apple was really going to use the word “Magical” in their marketing plan for the device.

But I’ll stand by the word “special.” The iPad isn’t like any other computer ever made. Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be brought back down to earth. One way is for other slate computers to learn from this example and elevate their game. Apple can’t control that.

The other way is for developers to make the iPad into something dull and ordinary by building apps that frankly could run on anything else. Apple can control the work of their own developers but not the hundreds of thousands of others.

So they have only two options: lead by example, or put every third-party developer on the corporate dental plan.

[Macworld Senior Contributor Andy Ihnatko is the technology columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times .]

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