By Jay Garmon
No matter how excited you are about the 9.7-inch HD display, capacitive multitouch interface, or staggeringly cheap 3G data plans promised by Apple’s iPad, there’s one feature that’s billed as a benefit but may prove to be more of a bug: The iPad runs the iPhone OS. On the surface this seems like shrewd platform cross-compatibility, but do you really want to pay between $499 and $829 (plus data plan) for a device that actually does less — as in no built-in camera, no phone — than your iPhone?
While you may be smiling inwardly at the notion of getting all your existing iPhone apps ported to your iPad for free (you’ve already paid for them), there’s a question of whether anyone really wants to run apps designed for a phone-sized screen on a tablet-sized display. During Steve Jobs’s demo today, we saw this phenomenon in action. Either the iPhone app ran at native resolution as a floating block inside a lot of blank screen real estate, or the iPad upscaled the app to its full screen resolution, presenting you with ridiculously oversized icons and buttons. If one could run multiple iPhone apps side by side on the iPad, that would be worth talking about, but that brings me to the second problem with building an iPhone OS-based tablet: No multithreading.
The iPhone OS can’t run background processes. It can’t have two apps open at the same time. You can’t chat while watching a video. You can’t read the New York Times while listening to Pandora. You can’t toggle between a word processor and a spreadsheet, or a Web browser and a presentation. Thus, while you can get an iPad version of iWork for $30 ($9.99 each for Pages, Numbers and Keynote), you won’t be using any of those apps simultaneously — which is how many of us work best. Here’s betting that most iPad adopters will want to rebuy most of their apps in iPad versions, which makes me wonder why the iPad couldn’t get its own multithreaded OS to begin with.
The other major drawback to the iPad’s iPhone OS-basis is a lack of support for Adobe Flash. I’ll accept not being able to render highly interactive Flash Web sites on my phone, but on a high-end media consumption device like the iPad I should be able to open every Web site on the planet. This Flash incompatibility also bans any Web video player that isn’t Quicktime or Youtube. Sorry budding filmmakers, but there will be no Vimeo or Hulu or Yahoo Video for you on the iPad. Jobs himself showed a failed Flashplayer icon during his Web surfing demo today, so clearly Steve isn’t perturbed by this feature limitation, which won’t be solved until HTML5 reaches full adoption — months or years from now.
On the bright side, the iPad running the iPhone OS does mean that the new iBook store will be cross-compatible with the iPhone, which is great news for iPhone owners. The iBook store will sell ePub versions of books from major publishers, which means digital reading just got a boost, if only because iBooks will appear on the world’s most popular mobile phone. That said, I don’t expect the iBookstore to truly revolutionize publishing, both because the $14.99 price point suggested for iBook titles is still too high, and because I can’t rip my existing dead-tree books to the platform. While almost anyone can copy a CD into iTunes easily, almost no one can scan in paperbacks to iBooks with any speed or grace. At $14.99 each I’m not going to rebuy all my favorite books for the iPad.
Now that the iPad SDK is in the wild, I expect developers to create new and innovative applications and content that truly take advantage of the iPad form factor, display, and interface. Until those iPad-native apps show up, however, I’ll reserve judgment as to whether the iPad is the successor to the glorious iPhone, or the ignominious Newton.