Comparing the iPad to the Netbook

Last night, while I was at the Mumbai airport waiting for my flight to Portland, I came across an article titled “The 20 biggest complaints about the iPad“. I believe most of the issues raised in that article fall in the “no big deal” category. No product will be perfect for everyone. However, one particular complaint struck me – number 17. It reads:

17. The iPad lacks a proper filing system
“…the iPad offers no conventional system of files and folders for storing work. The iPad was able to quickly and gracefully open my emailed PDFs but offered no way to save the files to the iPad for future access. Consequently, to read one PDF over several days, I had to repeatedly search for an archived email, re-download the PDF and then open it as if for the first time.” Omar Wasow, The Root.

The reason this point got my attention was because even before the iPad hit the stores, people started comparing it with the netbook and started saying that the iPad will be to the Mac what the netbook is to the PC. I think a reality check is in order.

First, let me explain how I use my netbook. I am typing this on a Dell Inspiron Mini 10v netbook on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic. This netbook contains each and every piece of software that is installed on my workstation back in office. I can rebuild each and every one of my 200+ products (along with documentation) and test them completely before my plane lands in Portland. To me, this is the meaning of taking my work on the road.

The most important thing is that my data (source code, third party libraries, documentation, installer scripts, etc.) is with me on my netbook, stored and organized in exactly the same way as it is on my workstation. Maybe not everybody uses their netbooks like how I do. But my point here is that any project consists of a number of pieces of information stored in different files and formats. They need to be kept in a convenient location for easy storage and retrieval. Every operating system gives users a way to do that by means of a filing system, be it on PC’s, Macs or whatever. The whole point of a netbook is to be able to leave your work computer in office, take the necessary files with you and be able to do your work while you are travelling. For that you need to be able to replicate the structure of your data on your work computer. If all that you want to do on the road is check your email and browse the internet then you can do that on your mobile. You really do not need a netbook.

So if the iPad does not have a filing system how do you take your work with you? I don’t know. I guess you would need to email yourself the files that you need and then search for them in the email attachments while you are on the road, like how Omar Wasow (quote above) did with the PDF file that he was reading. You don’t need me to tell you how ridiculous that sounds. And yet, people do this on the iPhone and will end up doing this on the iPad as well.

I tweeted about this last night which resulted in an email exchange with a hardcore Apple fanboy, the kind who stood in line to get his hands on one of the first iPads on launch day. The explanation that he gave me for the iPad not having a filing system was more of an excuse – that too a laughable one. According to him the iPad didn’t have a filing system because it did not need one since you could store all your files in the cloud and access them from anywhere. Trying my best to hide my amusement, I decided to push a little further. I asked him that if the cloud was a better solution than local storage why did Apple feel the need to store a user’s music on an iPod or iPhone and not in the cloud? Needless to say, after a few emails the conversation ended with a suggestion from him that involved sticking my netbook up my ass.

So why exactly does the iPad not have a filing system? The answer is actually a very simple one. A filing system is a key component of the OS. And the iPad is running the same OS as the iPhone. An OS, which in Apple’s infinite wisdom, does not need a filing system. The answer is not some stupid reason like having cloud storage. The limitation of the iPhone simply is carried forward to the iPad. It’s really as simple as that. And the same goes for a lot of the other criticism that the iPad is getting.

Personally, I believe that you cannot even start comparing something like the iPad to a netbook. It does not even come close to comparing apples to oranges. One runs an OS designed for a smartphone, while the other runs an OS designed for a computer. They are two very different things.

Don’t get me wrong. As a product, the iPad appears to be an excellent piece of hardware. I hope to buy one shortly. I think I will also agree with Apple’s claims that it will revolutionize tablet computing. Apple has mastered the art of creating products that visually appeal to consumers and mesmerize them with their simplicity. The amount of thought that they put into the design and feel of their products is second to none. Even the charger of my iPod Touch looks sexy. Over the past decade I have owned many moble phones, all shapes and sizes cutting across all brands. I currently have a HP iPAQ hw6965 for business and a BlackBerry 8830 for personal. Neither of them, or for that matter, any of the previous phones that I have owned, come close to the feel of the run down first generation iPhone that I am toying with. However, all this goodness can easily be confused for technical superiority and capabilities and can lead to people comparing things like the iPad to something far superior like a netbook.

Which brings me to the real question. How much of all this actually matters? Actually, it varies from needs of person to person. Very few people buy hardware to use it to its full potential. If the need arises, I can even run SolidWorks 2010, Inventor 2011, Solid Edge ST2 and Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 5.0 on my netbook. And for me, the need often arises. Very few people even aware of the full potential or limitations of a piece of hardware before they go ahead and buy it. For many people, the decision to buy a piece of hardware is already made the day a product is announced or a rumour about it is started. Apple knows this and that is why it saw absolutely no problem sticking a smartphone OS into a tablet device that is now being compared to a full fledged computer.

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  • MC

    1) If you read many of the critiques of the well-known general technology journalists and bloggers, most of them agree (as do I) that the iPad in its current form is a good consumer of content/data, but not a good creator of content/data.

    2) We need to clear something up here. I am not sure how the netbook ever acquired a classification/category of its own. It is nothing more than a cheap laptop with a lot fewer resources packed inside a very small case. Therefore, in my opinion, the netbook is nothing more than a small laptop.

    3) I don’t remember Steve Jobs saying the iPad would take the place of the netbook/laptop. That is probably a rumor started by Windows fanboys. It is supposed to reside in its own category.

    However, with some of the technologies in development, I believe a future version of the iPad (or some similar device) will ultimately replace the netbook/laptop.

    4) As a user of the iPhone, I too was not a fan of the lack of a native file management system. However, I found an app for that. I don’t know if the app is optimized for the iPad, but according to Apple it should work on the iPad:

    Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite $14.99 (US)
    With this app, you can create and edit Word, Excel, and text files (and soon Power Point files), store/manage multiple data file types, attach multiple data file types to email, edit data file email attachments, access files on the cloud, download files from the cloud so you have a local copy, transfer files between your iPhone and desktop/laptop computer via a web browser (using Wi-Fi), or attach your iPhone as an external drive and transfer files between your iPhone and desktop/laptop computer via Mac OS X Finder/Windows Explorer (using Wi-Fi).

    5) Besides, Apple had to leave something to add to future versions of the iPad. 🙂

  • MC: “I believe a future version of the iPad (or some similar device) will ultimately replace the netbook/laptop.”

    In all these years, a full fledged computing device running something as advanced as a Mac OS could not replace the PC. What makes you think that a device running a stupid smartphone OS that needs external apps to do basic file management will replace PC's? This is by far the most ridiculous prediction that I have read in a long time.

  • Tony

    2) The netbook is a “magical” combination of price (cheap), size (portability), capability (run most desktop apps) and battery life that was previously only available for about $2K (e.g. Sony SRX series from about 8 years ago).
    3) In the press conference Steve Jobs specifically stated that the iPad replace the netbook. I don't see the iPad ever replacing a notebook.

    IMHO, the iPad is overpriced, and is an awkward third device (between the pocketable and carry everwyhere cell phone and the larger but truly capable netbook/notebook). It's too expensive for most people to have just for lounging around in the house, and too big to take everywhere.

    Yes, I think the gadget freaks will love it (heck, I'd like a tablet – but I'll wait for the Notion Ink Adam), but I suspect it will be only moderately successful.

    So far my personal poll is negative: nobody I know is interested (including a fair number of gadget guys and iPhone owners), and my favorite non-techie (my wife) saw the billboard ads and said “No way”.

  • Tony

    Another note: you can discover the true fanboys by their worship of everything Apple, including limitations.

    Fanboy before 4.0: Since the iPhone/iPad don't include multitasking (unlike webOS, etc), it isn't needed and wastes battery life.

    But if Apple adds multitasking as expected to iPhone OS 4.0, then:
    Fanboy after 4.0: multi-tasking is a great and must have feature…

  • MC

    Deelip and Tony,

    I did not say the current version of the iPad would replace the netbook/laptop, I said a FUTURE VERSION or SIMILAR DEVICE will LIKELY replace the netbook/laptop. I also did not mean that this would happen tomorrow. I enjoy using my laptops and I enjoy using a keyboard, however, I am not shortsighted enough to believe this is the way it will always be.

    (Deelip) I must clarify – you said “What makes you think that a device running a stupid smartphone OS that needs external apps to do basic file management will replace PC's?” If you read my original statement, I say nothing about PC desktops, only PC netbooks/laptops.

    (Tony) I will take your word that Steve Jobs made that statement about the iPad replacing netbooks. I missed that press conference.

    (Deelip and Tony) I don’t agree that the current manifestation of iPad will replace netbooks/laptops. Nor do I believe the iPad currently deserves a category of its own. It has a long way to go to prove that. In my opinion the netbook also has not proven that is deserves some special category of its own either. It is simply a cheap, small, under resourced laptop with limitations.

    It is naïve for anyone to think we will be using laptops forever. My original point (that was lost in translation) is I believe some sort of mobile device will ultimately replace the laptop. With the advent of multi-touch technology and voice control/dictation, and the development of haptic and visual input devices, the keyboard and mouse will eventually become irrelevant. The iPad happens to be the closest mobile device I have seen that, depending on future modifications to hardware and OS, could take the laptop head on. It is also possible there is some non-Apple product on the horizon that could take on the laptop. Therefore, considering the various technologies being developed, (Deelip) it is not quite so “ridiculous” to think that the laptop will one day meet its match (regardless if it is a future version of the iPad or another mobile device).

    (Tony) I too found the use of the word “magical” by Apple to be a cheesy marketing ploy. I was a little embarrassed for them.

    (Tony) I also agree that the Apple fanboys take it to another level. However, so do the Apple haters. I am constantly surprised to find that the people who hate Apple products so much have never actually used them. I may come across as an Apple fanboy (I am not), but after providing 3D CAD tech support on windows based computers for a number of years, I was constantly annoyed at how unreliable and unnecessarily complicated Windows really is. I have only been using my MacBook Pro for one and a half years, and because of its reliability and simplicity, I almost never use my much more expensive PC laptop.

    (Deelip) You say “in all these years, a full fledged computing device running something as advanced as a Mac OS could not replace the PC.” You are correct that Mac computers have not taken a significant amount of the market share. However, after using both, I would put Mac OS X up against any Windows OS (including Windows 7). Although the functionality may be very similar, I will guarantee the Mac OS will win the reliability and simplicity test well over 90% of the time. Heck I would put my iPhone OS up against any Windows desktop OS, and although the functionality will be different, the iPhone OS will win the same reliability and simplicity test well over 90% of the time as well.

    I read a comment for an article exploring Macs vs PCs. The comment was made by a gentlemen that had used both Macs and PCs for a long time. He said, “…I use the Mac because I WANT to. I use the PC only when I HAVE to.” I could not summarize it better myself. Whoever is going to take the lead in the battle of the mobile devices is going to have to incorporate and balance simplicity, reliability, functionality, affordability, and a desire to use the product.

  • Tony

    On the desktop, the OS is unimportant (and I've used enough different OS's, including OS/2); it's the applications that matter. I don't spend my time using the OS, I spend it using application. For what I do, the applications simply do not exist on the Mac — and I have NO DESIRE to use a Mac.

    I don't want to start yet another OS war, but I'll just note that Windows has been quite reliable for me. I'll also make a prediction: Android will overtake the iPhone, because of the competition and freedom to innovate in the Android world. (The only new phone that has me really excited is the new HTC EVO 4G).

  • normandc

    “Freedom to innovate” is the word. With Apple, you have to abide by *their* rules. I've read many times that if they judge that the app you spent X hours developing isn't worth putting on their app store, tough luck.

    I was once a Mac user. Among other things, I became fed up by how Apple decides what I should do with their hardware and software, and how I should do it. The sect-like attitude of most Mac users didn't help either.

    The iPad is just another example of their dumb-down view of what an appliance should do.

  • MC

    (Tony) You make a very good point about the OS. The OS should be unimportant. As long as the OS is simple and reliable enough, you should not even have to remember it is there. That is good OS design. You are also correct in that the apps are what matters. They determine the functionality, capability, and, in many cases, the desirability of any device (desktop, mobile, etc.). I am not interested in starting an OS war either. It is a feudal endeavor. I happen to like using both Windows PCs and Macs. They both have their positive points. I am glad Windows machines have been reliable for you. That is good. Unfortunately, in my personal life and in my professional tech support experience, that has not been the case for many other users.

    (Norman) I too am not a fan of giving up my freedom to do just about anything. I can’t speak for Apple’s app approval process. You would have to discuss that with them. However, I recently considered upgrading the hard drive in my MacBook Pro. I found out that even though Apple sells other MacBook Pros with different size hard drives, they would not sell me the hard drive. Swapping out hard drives is pretty simple, but after reading about issues that others experienced with other non-Apple hard drives, I finally decided against it. On the flip side, I believe some of the tighter control they take on hardware and software is what leads to the consistent reliability of their products. I suppose there is a tradeoff here. If you want total freedom with your device, then you buy a PC. If you want assurance that your device will work consistently well out of the box, then you buy a Mac.

    (Tony and Norman) Bottom Line: Use whatever computer makes you happy.

  • normandc

    This is exactly what I was talking about:

    http://www.engadget.com/2010/04/08/apples-iphon

    With iPhoneOS 4, Apple tightens its grip even further on how developers should write apps for the iPhoneOS:

    “Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).”

  • MC

    I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about this. As a current iPhone user and a future iPad user, it really sucks not being able to view websites containing flash components. Knowing that Apple has rejected Adobe’s solution to this does not make me very happy.

    I like having as much freedom as possible. However, when I think of freedom, I don’t ever think of corporate America. The larger the business (i.e. Microsoft and Apple), the tighter the controls and the less freedom you will find. As a third-party developer, if you want true freedom in software development, you really have to turn to Linux and the rest of the open source community.

    I can’t speak to Apple’s motivations for doing this. John Gruber makes some interesting points in the following link:

    http://daringfireball.net/2010/04/why_apple_cha

    From a business perspective, if it is possible for a third-party developer to use this new adobe software/code (or some other code) to develop a new layer/meta platform that could take some control of the iPhone OS away from Apple or if an application containing the code would reduce iPhone performance, then I don’t blame them for making this decision.

  • MC

    This tight control over third-party developers may seem negative, but on the positive side, I believe it contributes to the overall quality of Apple products.