Why I’m A Tablet Fanboy

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About a month back, my man Jesse Brown wrote a rather provocative post on his Maclean’s blog titled “The iPad sucks.” I was on vacation at the time so I didn’t really have a chance to respond, so now seems as good a time as any.

Ordinarily, I’m very much on Jesse’s wavelength as we agree on many things, like copyright and broadband. If you don’t know him, he’s the host of the great Search Engine podcast for TVO and co-founder of Bitstrips.com, a website that features online comic strips.

As far as the iPad is concerned, though, our mindsets couldn’t be more different. His main beefs are that it’s a product in search of a solution, that it doesn’t really do much new and that it is a closed device that Apple hamfistedly controls.

On all of those accounts, to quote Thor, I’d say thee nay.

True, when the iPad was first released, no one really knew what it would be used for. Analysts and journalists speculated that it would kill netbooks and revitalize newspapers and, as Jesse points out, it has probably done neither. But the same could be said for just about any technology product. There is always the use cases that its manufacturer intends, but then people figure out how to use it in different ways. The PlayStation 3, for example, was intended to play video games and movies, yet astrophysicists have used them to calculate black hole effects.

That’s an extreme example, but the point still stands. In many cases, if you build it, they will come – and each person figures out their own way to use it. The iPad has sold a gazillion units, which is proof that it’s actually a highly versatile device. While Apple suggested a few ways to use it, the millions who bought it – and the app developers who created for it – figured out their own use-case scenarios.

The one that has me totally sold is how the iPad allows users to completely eliminate paper from their lives. If you’re a regular reader, you may remember my recent rant about the exorbitant cost of printer ink. When my HP Photo Smart printer recently ran out, I resolved to go paper-free, which seemed like it might be a bit tricky given that I was getting ready to go on vacation to Thailand. Normally, I’d print out my hotel reservations and plane tickets and make photocopies of maps or relevant sections of my guide book.

This time around, I copied all my tickets and reservations onto the iPad as PDFs, where I could read them using a number of apps (I use Comic Zeal, which is ordinarily for reading digital comics books). I got a few weird glances from front-desk clerks at hotels when I handed them my reservations on an iPad rather than a piece of paper, but nevertheless, they were just as good. And rather than tote photocopies around, I downloaded a few apps that gave me maps and all the information I needed about the places I was going. Moreover, with the good and ubiquitous Wi-Fi I found in Thailand, I was able to find nearby restaurants and navigate with the GPS, not to mention get all my email and stay up to date on stuff.

Could I have done all that on a laptop or smartphone? Sure, and I did actually bring a phone along. I didn’t really use it though – in cases where I needed an internet connection, the iPad and its larger screen was always more convenient and better to look at and far more convenient than whipping out a laptop and firing it up.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve found myself strangely inundated with contracts to sign. Having banished my printer to the closet to await its eventual violent destruction (don’t worry, I’ll record and share that), this proved to be a bit of a problem and seemed to be the last obstacle in my quest to achieve printer-free bliss. Then I discovered a great app, SignMyPad, that lets you open PDFs and sign them by drawing your signature with your finger. You can also add in text and check marks, so you can fill out all manner of contracts and application forms. That’s something I surely wouldn’t want to try on a smartphone and it’s simply not possible on a regular computer. As it stands, I can’t see a situation in which I’d ever need a printer again. I can’t express enough how happy that makes me.

Many people – myself included – were initially concerned about how restrictive Apple would be regarding the content and apps that could go on the iPad. I was worried that if you wanted to put a movie on the device, for example, you’d have to purchase it from iTunes. Not so. The VLC app, for one, lets you copy over any movies you may have – ripped from DVDs or acquired in other ways – and completely bypass iTunes. That was a life saver when I discovered the earphone jack on my airplane seat was faulty. Rather than sit and listen to crackly sound for 15 hours, I was able to watch my own movies and TV shows on the plane.

Apple is known for being a very closed and secretive company, which are characteristics that manifest themselves both in the way the company does business and its products. And, as I’ve pointed out many times, the company is also very hypocritical when it comes to sex and pornography on its products. But so far, as it pertains to what can or can’t go on the iPad or any of Apple’s other mobile devices, fears of censorship and micromanaging control haven’t come to pass. That’s not to say they won’t, but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of media or content – porn included – that you can’t easily get on to the iPad.

Other companies’ tablets are sure to be just as good, if not better, and some will even be more open. Indeed, I played with the Motorola Xoom last week and it looks like a nice competitor. The iPad isn’t the be all and the end all, but it certainly isn’t all those things Jesse said it is. In my own experience, it does do new things and it does solve problems I have and it’s as open as I need it to be. Those who like to tinker with the guts of a device will surely figure out how to do so, but that’s something that just doesn’t concern me. I just want the thing to work and to do what I want it to do. Running Linux on it just isn’t high on my priority list.

I’m already hard-pressed to think of situations where my laptop is better than the iPad – viewing websites that use Flash is one obvious case, as is any situation where extensive typing is required. As such, the laptop is starting to gather dust from all the disuse of late. The trend is only going to increase as tablets, whether they’re Apple’s or someone else’s, are going to continue getting better.

UPDATE: I didn’t actually know VLC got pulled from the app store back in January. That said, there are other apps available – these may get pulled at some point too if they similarly run afoul of Apple’s app store policies. Even still, in a worst-case scenario there are many types of converting software out there that will translate your DVDs into formats that can be copied onto the iPad. It’s nowhere near as convenient but still completely doable.