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A passing thought on the iPad: handheld ≠ mobile

I think one reason people have a hard time visualising how the iPad will fit into their lives is that they assume it will mainly be a mobile device; i.e. something they will actually carry around with them all the time.

I don’t think that needs to be true for it to be successful. I think it’s significant that Apple had a sofa on stage for the product launch.

Despite the fact that there is more than one real computer in the house, I often use the iPhone at home to look things up on the internet or check my email. Because if you just want to do something quickly, the device which is in the same room beats the one which is somewhere else; but also because sometimes it’s nice to do all that stuff from the comfort of a sofa.

Nintendo recently brought out a larger version of the DS, which might not make sense if you believe that a handheld device is all about portability. But it makes sense to me, because I don’t actually use my DS on the train or waiting for a bus; I sometimes take it on holiday but otherwise it doesn’t leave the house. It’s still nice to be able to just pick it up and play it anywhere. And somehow it feels like less of an effort — you can pick it up, play for a few minutes, put it down — it’s a more casual, comfortable experience than using a ‘real’ games console.

I think the iPad could be a successful product just to have around the house, something to pick up and use for a minute or two as an internet device or for casual gaming; something you can curl up on a sofa with. Something that never leaves the house, except perhaps to take on holiday.

Some people will carry them around, of course, and no doubt people will find lots of ingenious uses for the thing — it is a blank slate — but that may not be the norm.

I know what the Apple Tablet is for

Among all the speculation about the forthcoming Apple Tablet/iSlate/iPad has been a thread of uncertainty: no one is really sure what it’s for; what niche it fills.

Everyone has been missing the obvious: it’s an e-reader for birdwatchers.

I have two field guides on my iPhone: butterflies and birds. I haven’t had a chance to use the bird guide in earnest yet, but the butterfly guide has been useful several times. You never know when you might see a butterfly, and when you do, you need the information on hand immediately if you’re going to have a chance to identify it. I would happily fill my phone with other field guides — trees, flowers, fungi, dragonflies — just so I could always have that information to hand.

So that’s good. But but but: the screen is not big enough. A real, paper field guide would have several species, each with several illustrations, and distribution maps, and text, all on the same double-page spread. The phone has space for one or maybe two illustrations per screen; that means an awful lot of scrolling backwards and forwards to compare species.

Until screens get much much higher resolution, you’re never going to fit as much information onto a screen as you can on a printed page; but for these purposes, any increase in screen size is a bonus. And no, even with 16 levels of grey, an electronic paper display is not going to cut it.

And it’s not just field guides: there’s a new app for the iPhone that, for £25, has 1:50,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps of, for example, the South-East of England. Always having an OS map with you whenever you go for a country walk: how cool is that? Well, it’s a damn sight cooler with a 10″ screen than it is with a 3½″ one.

So, since the Tablet is going to be aimed at birdwatchers and ramblers, I confidently predict it will be a rugged, waterproof device designed for outdoor use.

No, just kidding.

OK, so the examples that spring to mind for me are rather specific, and Steve Jobs isn’t about to launch an incredible new product aimed specifically at birdwatchers and hikers. Sadly. But really, I think people might be overthinking this. After all, when is a bigger screen not a useful thing to have?

» iTunes links: butterflies, birds, OS maps.

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