Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I’ve written in praise of the iPad 2 for The Spectator’s latest luxury supplement. Here’s the piece in full.

“Lucy and I think the iPad is, like, the new mini-disc,” a sarcastic colleague told me last week. “They’ll get junked as soon as the fuss dies down – none of her mates have even bought one.”

I flinched theatrically at this comment: my iPad lay gleaming on my desk. Plus, he was implying that only Lucy’s crew – trendy London socialites – get to decide what’s in and what’s out. But what do they know?

They’ve probably just been listening to Charlie Brooker. On Channel 4 the other day he sneered at iPad owners, calling them “rectangle-worshipping sycophants” – they’re w—— who’ve just found a new way to draw attention to themselves.

Now the iPad 2 has launched, you can expect these people to whine even louder. “It’s still just a big iPhone that you can’t even make calls with,” they’ll say. Or, unimaginatively: “If you have a phone and a laptop, why would you need something in between?”

Fools, all of them: my sarcastic colleague, Lucy’s mates, Charlie Brooker and the other naysayers. What they refuse to accept is the scale of Apple’s success and how much people love these things. The company sold fifteen million iPads in 2010. It was launched in April, so that’s more than all other tablet PCs ever sold, in just nine months.

Why are so many people buying these shiny devices? Apple says it’s because they’re “magical” and “revolutionary”. This is true, but the iPad is only as good as the programs – the “apps” – which run on it. An iPad without decent apps is like the shell of an Aston Martin. You have to put the right things under the bonnet.

So on Sunday mornings you will now find me reading The Sunday Telegraph and The Sunday Times via iPad apps. If I’m feeling especially middle-aged, I might even watch the Andrew Marr show on the BBC app with a cup of tea in bed. Or use a radio app to listen to the cricket.

Will most people still read magazines on paper in 2020? I doubt it. A recent train journey to York flew by for me. On my iPad, I took The Spectator, Vanity Fair and The Economist – not to mention a few ibooks and episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm – without having to take a laptop or a massive suitcase. If I had wanted to work, then Pages or Numbers, the equivalent of Microsoft Word and Excel, would have sufficed.

There are 65,000 apps designed for the iPad. That freaks some people out. A computer scientist friend thinks that, because these apps only work on certain Apple machines, it flies in the face of the open doctrines espoused by companies like Google. “Sod them,” he says, hunched over his grey Hewlett-Packard laptop.

But for me it’s simply proof that Apple has cornered the market. Few media companies are brave enough to ignore this bandwagon. They compete to design the best apps, so the finished product – the device you own – just gets better.

Should you buy the iPad 2 now it has reached these shores? Yes, but be prepared to queue. At their worst, Apple addicts behave like ten-year-old girls chasing Justin Bieber – they are desperate to get their hands on the company’s new products. There’s a hard core of them that view Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, as an oracle – and they worry about the details of his illness. (Incidentally, this hard core will very likely ditch their first generation iPads on ebay, so look there this month if you’re after a bargain.)

Briefly, the specifics. The iPad 2 is one third thinner than the first iPad. It’s also 15 per cent lighter and twice as fast, but the battery life (10 hours of use or a month on standby) hasn’t dropped a minute. You’ll snigger if I launch into a hymn of praise for the iPad 2’s cover, but it’s really quite special. Attached by hinge-like magnets, it protects and cleans the screen. It can prop up the iPad 2 for typing or watching films… OK, I’ll stop now.

The iPad 2 has a couple of video cameras. The one on the back can record high-definition video – in that mode, the entire screen functions as a viewfinder – and the low-res camera on the front is suitable for video calls using Apple’s FaceTime software. A bit like Skype, if you’re into that sort of thing.

There are a few let-downs. It can’t photograph well and it still can’t play flash videos online, which does mean that some websites end up looking inanimate. But that shouldn’t be a worry. You can’t play all the BBC website’s videos, for example, but you’ve got the BBC app, which works beautifully. Besides, flash tends to crash my PC.

If you really can’t live without flash, though, you could always try one of the iPad’s competitors. Like the smaller Samsung Galaxy Tab, which – like most other tablet computers – runs on Google Android. This is an alternative universe, a rival to Apple but with fewer, less impressive apps.

The BlackBerry PlayBook might worry Apple when it’s released this year. But it’s smaller (a 7″ screen like the Tab) and most of its features, like its cameras and dual-core processor (ie its speed) are easily matched by the iPad 2.

In short, there’s no alternative to the iPad. The competitors are racing to catch up with Apple, but for the moment – and I would guess for the next three years – they’ll stay miles behind. Apple’s CEO may have irritated rivals in his time, but as one tech pundit recently put it, “it doesn’t pay to bet against Steve Jobs’s gut instinct.” He is a man who turned a dying company into one with a market value of more than $300 billion.

At this point, I should declare a vested interest. One of the reasons the iPad excites journalists is because it could save our industry. With a beautiful device, the universe of apps and the “one-click purchase”, Apple has made spending small amounts of money online effortless, even enjoyable. The weird age of free content is – thank goodness – coming to end.


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