iPad Wants & Needs

I wrote about getting an iPad not so long after they came out, and put my hand up to say "this thing is here to stay". I respond to my own post with a dose of extraordinary smugness, as two things have happened since. First, Apple sold 7.3 million iPads in 9 months. Second, I'm still using mine. So, with the impending release of the second generation (and rumours of the third already well under way), I've thought about what I might expect for iPad 2 (1.5?), and what I think it actually needs. First off, I can't imagine the next iPad to be much different, hardware-wise. It simply doesn't need to be. Apart from one omission, a front-facing camera, iPad basically has all the features it needed. Hardware features, anyway.

  • RAM. More RAM would certainly be a boon; at the moment Safari is very aggressive with its cache-emptying, to the point where switching between a handful of sites can be a pain as each reloads when you nip back to it. And the new multitasking has shown up more clearly the moments when paging delays the appearance of the next app. So yes, RAM would be nice, if not a necessity, as advances in the OS demand it.
  • Power. Sure, everyone loves a faster processor, right? Well, the only times I can honestly say I've waited for my iPad are app switching, a faster processor may help this a little, but not as much as more RAM. And if a faster processor affects the battery life adversely, then it would be backward step.
  • Battery life. It lasts for days! Literally. A journey to London and back, working on the train, playing and reading over the weekend, and it's down to 50%. And in some ways it's not surprsing; teardowns show the iPad is basically a big battery with a screen on the front. As batteries get more efficient, then great, we'll get more life out of something the same size and weight. But until that happens, there's no need to make device bigger or heavier.
  • Front-facing camera. Of course. It's been a glaring omision since day one. And when it gets one, iPad will suddenly be the replacement for a whole many more liveing room PCs.
  • Back-facing camera. Who wants one of these? Seriously? Why does every new device have to also be a camera? Bar Augmented Reality apps, I can't think of a single time I'd want to actually use my iPad to take a snapshot. AV is a cool concept, sure, but is anyone still using an AV app on their iPhone? I'm not convinced its a good enough reason to stick a second camera on the iPad. Apple have for the most part been about simplicity in design, and their products generally do one thing well. I'd love to see them break the mould and not put two cameras on it.
  • Retina display. This is the area that seems to have caught out the early predictors, and I can see it being where we might see a difference between a 1.5G and a true 2G model. The exact resolution needed to be 'retina' is up for debate, but it's true that the definition by Apple is not just pixels-per-inch, but takes into account viewing distance, which means that it wouldn't have to be quite the crazily high DPI of the iPhone 4. The current iPad doesn't quite do 720p (at a 16:9 aspect ratio, anyway) and so that is the obvious chalk mark for a new screen.
  • Thinner, lighter, smaller. The current iPad is actually pretty chunky, it's only Ive's excellent design skills that keep it looking as svelte as it does. Having said that, I wouldn't want to sacrifice that wonderful battery life. If iPad was a serious contender as an eBook Reader then I'd say it needs to lose some weight, but I don't think it is, so it's not so important. I know a 3 year old who can play "Need For Speed" for quite some time without his arms getting tired. Does it need to be smaller? In my opinion, no. The border is necessary until Apple add a way in iOS to disable touch events in the outside inch of the screen (and get rid of the home button). And if they did that, they might as well make the screen bigger, not the device smaller.
  • Home Button. The current (developer-only) beta version of iOS introduces gestures that could mean the home button is soon surplus to requirements. As it is, the home button is mostly a pain; it's always in the wrong place, and its a slower mechanism for switching applications than the gestures. The home button going, along with the toggling touch border, would be great improvements.

So it the hardware doesn't really need a big update, does that mean the iPad doesn't need any updates? Not at all, but the biggest changes I think iPad needs, and I want, will come from the software.

Last year, Jobs announced the next version of OS X, Lion, and explained how many features have been inspired by what the company has learnt from developing iPad (and by inference, iOS). This makes sense, and it also makes sense to think in the other direction; having used the first iPad, it becomes clear what features of OS X need to migrate back down to iOS.

  • User accounts. If this never happens, it's because of a short-sighted (and greedy) business decision. You cannot, of course, blame a corporation for being greedy; they are essentially the definition of it, but it may well turn out to be a poor business decision. People want to get an iPad to share, or 'for the house', and at the moment the lack of user accounts mean this isn't viable. I'm sure that Apple simply see the device as a personal device, and want everyone to buy one each. But if another company roll out multi-user tablets first, they could well lose out. The alternative of course, is to keep driving the cost down.
  • Keyboard. A number row. On the keyboard. That is all.
  • App switching. The new gestures allowing app switching without the home button are a much faster way to work. They still need some work, but once they are polished then working on iPad will feel a lot more efficient.
  • Notifications. An updated notification and messaging system (messaging as in application-messaging) has been need for a long time in iOS, and rumours are that it's around the corner (although I've yet to see it rolled out to developers). Unified notifications of mail, tweets, messages, reminders and so on will be a big step forward; it's the only place where currently iOS lags behind the other mobile OS offerings.
  • Full screen mode. Introducing a 'full-screen' mode, and a 'bordered' mode to iOS would mean it could eventually lose its border, currently necessary to hold the device without indadvertedly pressing something. Once this is implemented, and implemented well, the hardware could then change to reflect the enhancement.

So, what have we learnt? Personally, I'm not very excited by the new iPad hardware coming in April. Its likely to be a teeny bit nicer in every way, but no hame changer. The hardware due in September? That might be more interesting. But what really excites be at the moment, is what we can expect from iOS 5.