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.