Appropriate Indignation

Listening to the recent episode of Rene Richie's Vector podcast with Ben Thompson, I found myself infected by Thompson's righteous indignation at Apple's iPad strategy. After all the boneheaded doomsaying about Apple in recent months, it was refreshing to hear someone criticize Apple out of intelligent concern rather than laziness.

Thompson's argument, which he has also written about at length on his website, is that Apple itself actually seems unaware of the appeal, the potential, the "why" of the iPad. The power of the iPad is not its ability to merely replicate a computer's utility through touch input, but to actually enable new possibilities by putting users in a more immediate relationship to digital information.

If you are a musician, the iPad is your instrument, your studio. If you are an artist, the iPad is your paint brush, your easel. If you are a student, the iPad is your textbook. If you are a child, the iPad is your storybook, or your entertainment. If you are a grandma, the iPad is your connection to your family.

I had no idea what I might use the iPad for when I first bought it, and at first I remember thinking that it had been more of a luxury item than anything essential to my life. But as third party developers innovated and imagined new uses for it, apps like Instapaper, Reeder, Flipboard, iThoughts HD, and Day One became important parts of my daily life. Each of these apps can or do exist in desktop versions, but it was their iPad versions that appealed to me most directly.

More recently, I've found apps that I use in my job teaching developmental writing that I simply could not live without. To give just one example, there is an app called Doceri that essentially turns my iPad into a mini Smartboard, enabling me to annotate anything on my computer screen while it's attached to a projector. So, for example, I can put a section of a student's paper up on the screen and have the whole class talk about how to improve it, annotating the writing on the fly as we talk. This is the kind of app that allows a new, more direct interaction with digital content, helping me accomplish something that simply not possible before the iPad.

And yet what software did Apple demo onstage last week? The new iWork suite. A trio of apps that already worked better on the desktop than they ever could on the iPad. And what was the big update to these apps? Instead of adding functionality that only the iPad could provide, Apple chose to remove functionality from the desktop versions to bring them in line with their lesser tablet incarnations.

I am a longtime user of iWork. I grade all my students' papers in Pages. To do this, I make extensive use of the "comment" function. When I'm finished commenting on a student's paper, I can easily convert the document to a PDF for easy emailing to the student or printing a hard copy. In the new Pages, this ability is gone. You can comment on a document, but neither printing nor PDF export preserve the comments. They are only viewable within the Pages version. This is one of many features that have been removed in the rewrite of the iWork apps.

Gruber downplayed the controversy over the rewrite on Daring Fireball with a link to Matthew Panzarino, who wrote about the new iWork at Techcruch.

Lots of folks are getting all worked up about iWork being “dumbed down,” but it feels like a reset to me. I can see this playing out pretty much like Apple’s recent Final Cut Pro X re-thinking. That app was introduced in a radically simplified and streamlined form that caused immediate outcry. Over time, Apple has steadily added back features that were missing from the early dramatic redesign of the pro video-editing suite.

The difference is the motivation. Apple rewrote Final Cut from the ground up because they thought they could provide a better, more intuitive way of editing video. I'd argue that the magnetic timeline actually was a feature that deserved to have the app rewritten around it. By contrast, iWork on the iPad clearly was and still is an inferior experience to the desktop versions. Choosing to rewrite the apps around those inferior versions suggests that Apple misunderstands both the strengths and weaknesses of both its platforms, which is disheartening to say the least.