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Travels With My iPad – Not Very Far…

January 2, 2012

In July of last year, Apple’s cash reserves were higher than those of the US government. Although this had more to do with the stand-off between President Obama and the US Congress over the national debt ceiling, it is nonetheless interesting to note that at that time Apple could have settled half the national debt of Ireland, one of the Eurozone’s struggling members.

Three weeks before Christmas I contributed to Apple’s impressive cash mountain by buying an iPad 2. I was fed up with lugging a laptop to meetings and waiting minutes for the thing to do the equivalent of getting dressed in the morning before it was ready to do my bidding, while the person I had come to see was waiting, iPad at the ready, with an indulgent and slightly pitying smile.

Time to get slim, trim and elegant. Time to join all those people at airports, coffee shops and hotels wearing out their index fingers massaging the pixels on their sexy little tablets.

An opportunity to take part in those techie conversations at Christmas get-togethers. To impress the next generation, and listen to the silver surfers trilling about how their iPads have changed their lives. Time to send a message about my membership of the Apple club.

So early in December I found myself in Raleigh, North Carolina, and decided to take the plunge. I headed for the Apple Store in the nearest Mall. The place was packed. To get served, you had to pick up a number and wait. Outside the store were people hanging around, waiting for their moment to worship at the temple of cool. Inside, store assistants ranging from young Zuckerberg clones to old hippies were having deep technical conversations with potential customers. Fortunately, there was a fast track for people who knew exactly what they wanted. I was one of them, or thought I was. So in short order I walked out with a 64gb iPad 2 with WiFi but without 3G.

The assistant tried to sell me an extended warranty. I asked if Pads break down often, I asked. Of course not, she said. End of conversation.

In financially stricken America, the Apple product was flying off the selves. You would have thought it was launch day for a Harry Potter book.

So apart from impressing others with my tech cred, what did I want out of my iPad?

My must-haves were the ability to access email, Skype and the web on the run, to deliver presentations and to show videos and pictures. The nice-to-haves were to watch the occasional movie or video clip, and to listen to music.

As for the fabled apps that would expand my world beyond my stunted imagination, well, they would have to wait until I had satisfied the basic needs.

Three weeks on, how have I fared with my gleaming black fashion icon? The answer is: mixed.

Admittedly falling in love with my Ipad has not been a priority during a busy period taken up with holidays and other pressing priorities. And anyway, what kind of idiot falls in love with a computer? The same person who falls in love with a car, I guess.

It hasn’t helped that I am a relative newcomer to the Kingdom of Apple. My only previous experience has been as a long-term iPod user, mainly on planes and in hotels. And the iPod – though a marvel in that it can hold hundreds of albums – is not so great if all you want is listen to all the CDs you have transferred to it, and easily find what you want to hear. It has no search capability, and though you can order your content by album or artist, if the titles have not come over fully from the CDs, you are struggling to find what you want easily, especially with classical music. All the other options strike me as fiddly and time consuming to set up.

With the iPad, I was expecting the much-touted Apple interface to make things much easier. And some things were easy. Setting up my email accounts, for example.

But when it comes to moving multiple files from the laptop, you are immediately faced with hurdles. Because Apple allows no direct interface between my Windows laptop and its device, you have to use third party storage and transfer devices like DropBox, or Apple’s own iCloud. When I tried to transfer some pictures via DropBox, I found that I could only do so file by file. Not good if you want to transfer 2000 pictures. Then I discovered that to do this I needed a different version of DropBox for the laptop. To date, I have not managed to transfer a single file.

When I spoke to a fifteen-year-old acquaintance about this, he said “it’s easy. You just do this, that and the other on your laptop, connect them up and you’re done”. “Hang on”, I said, “you have an iBook, right?” “Yes”, he said. “Well, how do you do this with a Windows laptop?” “Er, not sure”, he said.

It was then that I realised what this was all about. Apple is the mother of all closed systems. All roads lead to and from iTunes. Yes, you can interface with Windows devices, but the whole Apple commercial machine is dedicated towards getting you kitted out with Apple products – iBook, iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple TV and so on. And when you spend thousands of bucks on an all-Apple set-up, you are rewarded with the nearest thing in computing to a seamless interface. But an interface available only to the subjects of the Apple kingdom.

And I laughed at the irony.

For the past twenty years, the watchword in the IT industry has been “open good, closed bad”. Poor Bill Gates and his Microsoft creation have been castigated as the evil empire. Anti-competitive practices, market dominance, aggressive elimination of rivals.

Yet what Microsoft has achieved has been to take us further than any other company towards fulfilling the dream of computing as a utility. Switch on, communicate and interchange via an interface that almost everyone in the world understands. Yes, Microsoft’s software is often over-complex and memory hungry. But at least it serves as the nearest thing we have to a common currency.

Apple, on the other hand, has – whether by accident or design – created a set of highly attractive products that work best together, and not so well with non-Apple products. Sometimes not at all, as was the case with Flash. You could argue that this is good marketing, and that if you don’t like having to shop at one store for all your computing needs, you can find alternatives to each of its products.

You’d be right of course, but I personally resent being convinced by slick marketing and a measure of fashion pressure to buy a device that works most easily and effectively only if you buy other products in its stable.

It seems to me that by virtue of genius marketing and inspired design, Apple has created a competitive firewall, with little of the criticism levelled at Microsoft and all those proprietary vendors that flourished before the days of “open systems”.

And the corporate mythmaking that has elevated the late Steve Jobs to secular sainthood has brushed under the carpet contrary views that Apple was led by a rather unpleasant person – a man at least as ruthless as any of  his rivals, and vindictive to the point of obsessiveness towards those who crossed him personally or commercially.

No doubt there are millions of Apple devotees who would dismiss my concerns as unfair generalisations born of ignorance and prejudice. But my point is that as a newcomer to Apple I am ignorant, so I only have generalisations to rely on. And I don’t want to spend hundreds of hours trawling through iTunes for solutions, or bothering friends for hints as to how to get the best out of a product that is supposed to be at the cutting edge of usability.

At this stage in my relationship with my iPad, I feel just a little bit conned. The world I have entered is not what I thought it would be. So I guess I have to go back to the old refrain: no pain, no gain.

Perhaps I will come through to the other side as a fervent convert. But right now I feel that it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Have I stumbled on the real evil empire? Will the emperor be revealed as having no clothes? Only time will tell.

From → Business, USA

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