Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Giant iPod Touch

In 2010, Apple announced the iPad. It was immediately derided across the internet for being just a giant iPod touch. But here's the funny thing: (1) until the Surface RT was released last year, the iPad was the only tablet on the market that wasn't just a giant iPod touch; and (2) many of the people who criticized it for being just a giant iPod touch have since gone out and bought giant iPod touches themselves and now argue vociferously that tablets don't need to be anything more than giant iPod touches.

Anyone who says that Apple took a smartphone operating system and scaled it up to fit on a tablet simply doesn't know what they are talking about. That is what Google did with Android. Apple spent ten years developing iOS as an operating system for tablets. They had no intention of entering the smartphone market. The only reason that Apple did not release the iPad in 2007 instead of the iPhone is because they couldn't find a viable go-to-market strategy for it. The multitouch interface was too different and consumers would have a hard time seeing why they would want one.

While they were struggling to figure out how to bring the iPad to market, someone had the bright idea to use iOS on a smartphone instead. The thinking went something like this:
  1. People already see the value proposition in a smartphone.
  2. More and more people are buying them.
  3. Smartphones will eventually displace cell phones over time.
  4. The user interfaces for current smartphones suck.
  5. A smartphone that was powerful and fun to use could easily disrupt the market.
  6. Once people were familiar with iOS and multitouch interfaces, the market would be ready to embrace the iPad and tablet computing.
The iPhone was the go-to-market strategy for the iPad, and iOS was scaled down to fit on a smartphone, not scaled up to fit on a tablet. The reason why iOS feels so much simpler than Android (toy-like is the technical term) is because the vision that Apple had for tablet computing was very app-centric. Apple envisioned the iPad as an appliance for apps. When the user launched an app, the hardware and operating system would disappear and the app would take over.

Because of the way that iOS and the iPad were engineered, apps in the Apple ecosystem flourished. I haven't read this anywhere, but I'm sure that the iPad was designed to run touch-based versions of Apple's own iWork and iLife suites from the very beginning, and that these apps were being designed in parallel with the hardware and operating system. And I haven't read this anywhere either, but I'm willing to bet that Surface was designed first and only now is the Office team being asked to port Office to it.

Because apps are flourishing in the Apple systems and are cited as the number one reason for choosing an iPad over a much cheaper Android tablets, the Google fans who once derided the iPad for being just a giant iPod touch are now saying that tablets don't need apps... they are simply media consumption devices and you only need the built-in functionality. Tablets are valued among Android users almost exclusively because you have more screen real estate to see things. In Apple's vision, tablets are valued because you have more screen real estate to also do more things. This runs counter to Andy Rubin's vision for Android apps, which is that there should be no difference between phone and tablet apps and that all tablet apps should work equally well on a smaller screen.

If there is one tech company that would not simply take an OS designed for one form factor and shoehorn it into another form factor, it is Apple. That's not how they roll. When Apple ported Safari over from OS X to iOS, they didn't just tweak the UI to make things touch-friendly. The browser was a core component of the user experience and, originally, most apps were going to be delivered as web apps built on top of WebKit, so a ton of thought and engineering was put into it. Since most web pages were designed for and tested in desktop browsers, page elements that accepted mouse input were generally spaced for large screens. But on a small screen with imprecise touch input, many of those page elements were going to be too close together. Instead of porting Safari over to iOS and calling it a day, Apple engineered Safari so that it will try to guess which page element you are trying to touch when you tap close to multiple targets. This is useful for touch input, but it is also critical because of how Apple has implemented its tap-to-zoom feature. When the user double taps on the screen to zoom in, the browser zooms into a specific page element, such as a <div> tag. These page elements are often nested and were never designed to accept mouse input in the first place, so Apple knew that they needed to build some kind of logic into Safari so that this was a useful feature and not an exercise in frustration. And all of this was built into frameworks so that developers could use it with little to no effort.

On Android, as far as I know, browsers still behave like desktop browsers, which make no attempt to interpret user intent when the user taps close to multiple targets. And tap-to-zoom zooms a fixed amount instead of zooming in on a specific page element. This means that Android users tap-to-zoom to sort of zoom in on the content they want, and then use pinch-to-zoom to adjust the view. Android users have been complaining about this for years on forums. Another thing that they have been complaining about is the inability to use pinch-to-zoom on emails displayed using html in Google's own gmail app. This has been fixed recently, but it means that pinch-to-zoom was hacked together for the Android browser and not built into some kind of webview framework for all to use. Does any of this matter? Well, I think it is kind of telling when you analyze the usage data for Android and iOS. Android and iOS users both surf the web about the same amount when using cellular data, but iOS users surf the web about an order of magnitude more when using wifi data. My interpretation of this data is that, when you have access to wifi you often have access to a computer, and most Android users prefer to surf on a computer when presented with a choice while most iOS users prefer to surf on an iOS device. That has to say something about how well the browsing experience has been optimized on mobile devices.

When people laughed at the iPad for just being a giant iPod touch, they may have really meant that no one would want a giant iPod touch for $499, but that it would be a great deal for $199. I think that is a perfectly logical argument to make. There really isn't a strong argument for choosing an iPad over an Android tablet unless you simply prefer being immersed in the Apple ecosystem or you want to do stuff (i.e., run apps) on your tablet. Just don't say that the iPad is a giant iPod touch. You're being lazy.

No comments:

Post a Comment